You’re strolling down the ‘bar aisle’ at the grocery store. You know the one. The one with all the ‘energy bars’ and the ‘protein bars’ and the ‘meal replacement bars’ and ‘snack bars’, and…
Perhaps, like me, this aisle overwhelms you a bit. But you need to stock your pantry for those mornings when you have to run out the door without breakfast, or maybe you need to refill your stash for your next weekend backpacking trip, so you start scanning the shelves.
“Holy cow,” you think, “are there even more options than the last time I was here??”
New bar brands are hitting the shelves every day, and while this is great for adding variety when you inevitably get sick of your current favorite, it’s also overwhelming when you’re looking for one that’s going to power you up the mountains or through a long day of work.
How do you choose one that’s healthy? How do you find one that’s not just a candy bar in sheep’s clothing? (If you’re going for a candy bar, that’s your call – just don’t pay protein bar prices for what’s essentially a well-marketed candy bar – e.g. those ‘nutrition’ bars with more sugar than a Snickers. #healthwashing.)
Why Protein + How Much?
First, what’s the big deal with protein? In short, it’s essential for every living being. You need it for proper immune function, and for muscle repair and recovery. It helps stabilize your blood sugar (and therefore, your energy levels) and keeps you full longer. It also carries electrolytes into and out of cells, and is a building block for muscles, skin, bones, and blood.
How much do you need? There are a lot of opinions on this question. Protein needs vary based on gender, activity level, and your goals (weight loss, muscle gain, maintenance). The Recommended Daily Allowance is 0.8 grams per kilogram (1kg = 2.2 lbs, so that’s 0.36 grams per pound) of bodyweight. Personally, I feel best when I eat in the range of 0.6-0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight. It’s generally recommended that more active individuals eat more protein.
How do I choose one?
Here are 3 steps I use for bar selection + tips on when to use different bars based on your goals (recovery, muscle building, weight loss, etc.).
- Look at Ingredients
At a very basic level, look for whole, real foods; things you can readily identify, such as almonds, dates, oats, prunes, hemp seeds, cocoa powder, and so on. The ingredients should be simple and as close to the form found in nature as possible.
- Consider Your Goals
What are your needs? Are you looking for a snack bar to tide you over until dinner? Or for a meal replacement? Do you plan to eat it while you’re being active, like on a long run or a hike? It’s helpful to know how and when you intend to use the bar because it can influence what you’re looking at in step 3.
- Scan the Nutrition Label
Look at the protein. To me, a protein bar should have, at minimum, 5 grams of protein. If you’re looking for a meal replacement bar or one to use when you’re exercising strenuously or during heavy lifting, look for 20+ grams of protein. If you’re on a specialty diet (e.g. vegan), look at the source of the protein and choose accordingly (e.g. avoid whey if vegan).
Look at the fiber. I generally prefer bars with 6+ grams of fiber. This keeps you full until your next meal, stabilizes blood sugar, and promotes a healthy gut microbiome. Fruit and nut-based bars generally have more fiber.
Consider calorie ranges. When searching for a snack bar in my day to day life, I’ll look for bars in the 200-calorie range. If it’s a meal replacement bar, 300-400 calories is a better choice, assuming I want it to keep me full until my next meal. If I’m on a thru-hike, I look for the highest calorie per ounce bar I can get.
Evaluate the Protein to Carbohydrate Ratio
Okay, just a little simple math required on this one. If you’re interested in losing weight, a bar with a 1:1 or 2:1 protein to carbohydrate ratio would be a good choice. If you want to build muscle, or improve workout recovery, or get a burst of quick energy, anywhere between a 1:2 to a 1:4 protein to carbohydrate ratio is what I’d look for.
What to Avoid
There are a few things to avoid, if possible. One is sugar alcohols, like xylitol, sorbitol and maltitol, as these can cause bloating and cramps. I’d also steer clear of trans fats, high fructose corn syrup, and artificial colors.
Final pro tip, find a handful of brands that suit your criteria and stock up on multiple flavors, because you will inevitably get sick of them. Having a rotation at least slows that process. Knowing some go-to brands makes future shopping trips faster and less overwhelming. Having a criteria for selection, as outlined above, makes the process quicker if you’re in a new store and you can’t find your go-to brands.
I believe in meeting our nutritional needs through food first, but when you need an on-the-go meal or snack option, healthy protein bars can be a healthy option. You just have to know what to look for 🙂