By Soji James, CPT, CSCS
I’m sure you’ve heard this over and over again, but I’ll echo it one more time for the people in the back: protein is a big deal. It plays a major role in the optimal functioning of our bodies and in transforming our bodies by decreasing hunger, building/repairing muscle, and assisting in the production of enzymes/hormones that allow us to operate on a day to day basis. If you haven’t heard this before, then protein may possibly be the missing piece that takes your results to the next level. Start by finding the amount of protein that you need.
If you’re already a protein veteran, then you also know that getting a diverse array of natural sources is key, but sometimes life throws a wrench in your plans and you have to improvise. Nowadays everyone is short on time, shuttling from one commitment to the next, making obtaining the right quantity of protein tougher. In this case, grabbing a protein bar can be the perfect solution to keep you fueled on the go. Companies have caught on to this fact, and we have undergone a protein bar revolution. You’ve probably noticed the extreme uptick in the availability of protein bars at your local grocery store and left feeling extremely overwhelmed. I’m here to help you cut through the noise and make the decision that is best for you.
Here are 5 boxes you should check off before choosing your next protein bar.
When choosing a protein bar it’s extremely important to understand how you plan to use it first. The amount of protein in a typical bar on the market ranges from around 10-30g of protein. Where your bar lands on this spectrum will play a major role in how efficiently it works for you.
If you are looking for a snack, a protein bar in the range of 10-15g would be okay. Don’t expect these bars to keep you full though. The amount of protein present is also too low to maximize any muscle-building effects. In this case, you are much better off pairing these bars with a handful of nuts to add a source of fat and boost your protein intake closer to 20g. If you are looking to replace a meal (you don’t want to do this on a regular basis but we understand that things happen) or maximize your muscle-building capabilities, choose a bar that is in the 25g-30g range.
When it comes to the protein hierarchy, whey protein is pretty high up there. Gold Standard Whey Protein is a great choice. It contains an impressive range of essential amino acids and is absorbed quickly. Studies show that it can help you lose fat (while preserving muscle), increase size/strength, and reduce hunger pretty efficiently. Egg white protein is also another high-quality variation; plus you’ll get a boost of vitamins from your eggs. If you are looking to avoid animal protein or can’t opt for these variations for other reasons, then soy protein is a solid option to consider. While it originally was surrounded by a bit of controversy, it seems that the benefits of consuming it in moderation far outweigh the potential risks cited by weak evidence. If you’d rather avoid soy altogether, then other vegetarian proteins like pea protein and hemp protein are fine.
A lot of protein bars are actually wolves in sheeps’ clothing. If you aren’t careful, you could be leaving the store with a glorified candy bar instead of a vehicle for muscular growth. These high sugar bars will spike your blood sugar and leave you in the same crave cycle that you were attempting to avoid when you bought them. When choosing a bar, aim for 10g of sugar or less if possible. If the bar does contain more than 10g, make sure it comes from fruit or other natural sugar sources. If you are looking to limit sugar as much as possible I would grab a bar sweetened with monk fruit or lean towards sugar alcohols. Although they taste sweet, they are lower in calories than regular sugar and won’t affect blood sugar levels. The only knock on the sugar alcohols (they contain neither sugar or alcohol) is the possibility that they may cause some digestive trouble, especially when consumed in large amounts.
Let’s get this out of the way: a protein bar can’t hold up against a balanced meal in a battle of nutrient density, so if you have the time opt for real food. Save protein bars for when you need them. That being said, if you are snacking on a protein bar, aim for it to be around roughly 250 calories. If you need to replace an entire meal that day try to choose one below 400 calories.
You want your protein bar to read more like a recipe, and less like the lab notes from a Dr. Frankenstein experiment. You want your bar to mimic real ingredients, so search for whole food components on the ingredients list. A good rule of thumb is to aim for bars with a list of 8 ingredients or less. You won’t always strike gold with this rule, but it’s a great ballpark to be in if you want to maximize the quality of the foods that you put into your body.
As a trainer, it can be so easy to get caught up in the health of your clients that you skip or go for long periods of time in between your own meals. My favorite go-to protein bars to avoid this and to keep my energy high are the ones from QuestBar. They taste good, are low in sugar (only 2g), and have 20g of protein. They are apparently a huge hit on Amazon, with a 4-star rating on over 15,000 reviews. Find your favorite flavor by picking up this variety pack.