Protein foods and protein snacks are everywhere, being promoted for their satiating effect and portability. The most popular, especially among women, is the protein bar. But, how do you know if they are actually healthy or just a chocolate bar disguised as a protein bar? Melanie investigates what we should be looking for in our protein bars.
As a Dietitian I always take a food first approach as you simply can’t get the same amount of nutrients in a manufactured product. Just because a product is marketed on a pedestal for muscle recovery, doesn’t mean it’s the healthiest option. Wholefood sources of protein (meat, dairy, eggs, vegetarian alternatives) will always trump the best protein bar out there.
In saying that, there is certainly a place for protein bars. They’re a fantastic option especially amongst time poor athletes maintaining a large muscle mass for their sport (eg. power sports, footy, bodybuilding). I also find that having protein bars available as an emergency snack option is better than hitting the vending machine. So what do you need to consider when choosing the right bar for you?
1. Total Energy
What is the total kj or calorie content of the bar? As a general rule for most of us, mid meal snacks should provide around 600-800kj. This equals about the same as an apple with a tablespoon of peanut butter or a couple of vita-wheats with cheese. Anything greater than this and you may overstep your total energy budget for the day leading to eventual weight gain (especially if you are female). Become a guru at reading nutrition labels as the nutrition composition of protein bars vary considerably. Unfortunately, some protein bars are just glorified ‘energy’ bars.
2. Amount of Protein
The more protein the better correct? Well no. Research shows that for protein to be utilised in the body we need to consume regular ‘hits’ of approximately 20-40g rather than large amounts at one sitting. Daily protein requirements and ‘hits’ vary based on age, gender, type/intensity/amount of training and body composition goals. It is important to understand protein is not a free calorie. Excess energy and protein intake is stored as fat. Therefore, choose a bar that suits your individual goals.
3. Amount of Carbohydrate
Carbohydrates play an important role in providing energy for the body to perform exercise at a high intensity and it is necessary for optimal muscle protein synthesis (muscle building) post resistance exercise. If building muscle tissue is your goal, you should aim to consume approximately 1g per kilogram carbohydrate plus protein as soon as practical after training. Most protein bars are fairly low in carbohydrate, so to maximise muscle growth you really need to be having a snack as well (fruit, oats, yogurt, toast) If you are simply looking to recover and maintain lean muscle mass without building bulk, a low carbohydrate bar is fine.
4. Does it contain sweeteners?
When a protein bar is low in carbohydrate, it is most likely going to contain sugar alcohols to replace sugar and give the product its sweet taste. These are usually listed as erythritol, sorbitol, xylitol, glycerol and mannitol. While some people tolerate sugar alcohols, others can experience IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) symptoms including bloating, gas and diarrhoea.
Our Protein Bar Picks:
- Optimum Nutrition Protein Stik – single (530kj, 12g protein, 2g carbs)
- Musashi P8 Low Carb (400kj, 8.5g protein, 1.1g carbs)
- Aussie Bodies ProteinFX Lo Carb (400kj, 8.5g protein, 2.7g carbs)
Build Strength, Maintain Muscle
- Bodyscience Low Carb (860kj, 18.6g protein, 3.9g carbs)
- Quest bar (800kj, 20g protein, 6g carbs)
- Bodyscience Nitrovol (1170kj, 25g protein, 5.3g carbs)
- Aussie Bodies ProteinFX Super (1530kj, 25.6g protein, 18.4g carbs)
- Dymatize Elite Protein Bar (1100kj, 25g protein, 26g carbs)
- Understand your protein and carbohydrate needs and match this to your protein bar. If you need help with this ask your Dietitian.
- If battling the 3pm chocolate hunt, a fudgy protein bar may be an alternative option, as it will make you feel full and satisfied compared to chocolate.
- Consider whether you can replace a protein bar with a high protein snack such as yogurt, nuts/seeds, eggs on toast, or nut butter spreads with fruit. Food first approach will always be better for your health.
- Consider making your own high protein bar such as our trail mix slice in the Recovery E-Book, that way you know exactly what is in it.