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The Sordid Secrets of Protein Bars

What's your protein bar telling you?

Nutrition fads have come and gone over the years, but one piece of advice has remained the same. "Eat five to six times every day." Doctors and nutritionists agree it's the best way to keep energy levels consistent and maintain a proper weight.

I just have one question for those experts, who do they think they're kidding?

If you've got time to cook five or six meals every day, you probably work as a chef. In today's hectic world, sitting down and eating ONE meal a day is an accomplishment. Six meals? No way.

To fill in the gaps, many people have been grabbing protein bars for at least one of those meals. The trick is, knowing what to look for in those bars. You've got to look beyond the marketing gimmicks and seductive packaging. Here are the seven rules you should follow to pick the healthiest bar for you.

1. Pay attention to the name, because there are several categories. Snack bars, diet bars, meal replacement bars, nutrition bars, energy bars, cereal bars, granola bars and protein bars. Each one serves a different purpose.

  • Snack bars typically contain the fewest calories with about 100 calories each. Unfortunately many are nothing more than low-calorie candy bars, full of simple sugars and fat. If you're looking for something healthy, these probably shouldn't be one of your choices.

  • Diet and Meal Replacement bars are usually lower in calories, and they typically have more carbs than protein. They're meant to replace regular meals for dieters and to be eaten as a post-workout snack.

  • Nutrition bars try to be several things. Some are marketed to the diet and meal replacement audiences while others include high levels of protein to appeal to bodybuilders. Since there's no clear definition, you'll have to read the nutrition labels carefully.
    Bar Selection
  • Energy bars tend to be targeted to people who need a little boost when they're feeling tired. Unfortunately, many of those bars get their energy from simple sugars or high fructose corn syrup. If you're not an endurance athlete, you probably already get enough simple sugars in your diet. Some energy bars are replacing those sugars with caffeine, ginseng, guarana or the stimulant ephedra. If you don't know how those ingredients might affect you, look for another bar option.

  • Cereal and Granola bars are being pitched for people too busy to sit down to a bowl of cereal. They're often a poor substitute. Most are high in simple sugars without much of the protein benefit milk provides. Consider skipping cereal bars for a bowl of fat-free milk and real cereal, without pouring on extra sugar of course.

  • Protein bars are designed for people who are working out. These usually have the highest levels of protein and they're typically designed to help you build muscle.

2. Check out the calories. Are you looking to replace an entire meal or just take a little edge off your hunger? Some bars are under 100 calories while others pack on over 400 each. Make sure the total calories are within the range you have budgeted for that meal.

3. Watch the fat. The first two items listed on most nutrition labels are the calories and the calories from fat. Take the calories from fat and divide that by the calories. If the answer is higher than .30, it's more than 30% fat. Choose another bar.

4. Don't eat too much sodium. If the total milligrams (mg) of sodium is higher than the number of calories, you need to look for a lower sodium option.

5. Fiber is good, and many Americans don't get enough in their diet. If you've got a choice between a couple of bars, and everything else is equal, choose the bar with the most fiber. Three or more grams per serving is a good start.

6. Skip bars with sugar alcohols if you've got a sensitive stomach. Some versions, particularly Mannitol or Sorbitol, can cause "gastric distress" and you might want to avoid them.

7. Watch out for the sugar rush. Unless you're choosing a bar for a post-workout meal, keep the simple sugars to 3 grams (g) or less per 100 calories.

Follow these rules and you'll end up with a powerful meal replacement and not a candy bar hidden in a protein bar wrapper.

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