Are protein bars good for you?

Protein is an essential macronutrient which is required by the body for a large number of functions. It builds and repairs muscle tissue, supports the health of your skin & nails, keeps you feeling full and protects enzyme functions.

It also helps with weight management; studies such as this have found that increasing protein intake reduces the total number of calories consumed per day.

Protein can be obtained from a large number of foods including eggs, beans, legumes, fish and meat. Whilst there is no doubt that these protein sources are great, many of them need to be cooked before they can be eaten and this might prove to be an inconvenience at times.

This is where protein bars come in handy. Not only do they taste great, they can also be eaten right after working out without any preparation. It is much more convenient to carry a protein bar to the gym than it is an egg sandwich.

But are they good for you?

It depends. Due to the large variety of bars available, some will definitely do your body more good than others. Protein bars come in a multitude of flavours and the amount of protein will vary from brand to brand; the average amount tends to be roughly 20 grams. This is a fairly significant amount and equates to the protein content found in 3 large eggs.

The type of protein used to make these bars also varies:

The first and most common is whey, and is obtained from milk. Whey is a complete protein source, which means that it is a source of all 9 essential amino acids. These are the ones that the body cannot produce on its own and therefore need to be obtained from the diet. Whey is very digestible and is absorbed by the gut quickly.

Whey is a rich source of leucine, an amino acid that promotes muscle growth. Studies have also shown that whey protein might be able to assist with lowering blood pressure, moderating blood sugar, reducing inflammation and enhancing the body’s antioxidant defenses. Most people can tolerate whey very well, but if you are lactose intolerant it could lead to gas, bloating and cramps.

The second type of protein that is used is soy protein, which is obtained from the soybean and is used in manufacturing a large number of food products. Soy is a highly controversial food, being considered a superfood by some and a health hazard by others.

On the positive side, some studies have found that soy consumption might be able to lower total and LDL cholesterol and observational studies have shown that it could reduce the risk of prostate cancer in old age. Additionally, soy provides respectable amounts of various vitamins & minerals, including potassium, iron, vitamin B-6 and magnesium.

Unfortunately soy also contains substances called isoflavones, which can activate estrogen receptors in the body. Soy may also interfere with thyroid function, although there isn’t enough evidence to conclude that it contributes to hypothroidism.

This study compared soy and whey protein bars and found that both promoted exercise induced lean body mass gain. However due to the controversial nature of soy, I would personally opt for whey protein based bars.

Finally, some bars contain rice, hemp or pea protein. These are all great options, although they usually don’t taste as great as whey protein based bars and therefore may not be as appealing. Bars made from these ingredients also tend to contain less protein. However they are an ideal choice for vegans.

Certain bars also come fortified with vitamins & minerals. Additionally, bars that are gluten free, kosher and vegetarian are all available.

Provided you choose the correct type, protein bars can definitely be part of an otherwise healthy diet. Here is what you should look for when making your choice:

  • Protein and carbohydrate content – some bars contain as little as 5 grams of protein whereas others have as much as 30 grams. You should opt for a bar that has at least 15 – 20 grams at minimum. The protein to carb ratio is also important. Carbohydrates come in handy after exercise as they replenish glycogen stores, but a bar that contains 90% carbs and 10% protein isn’t the best option. Opt for a bar that has at least an equal amount of carbs and protein.
  • Total calories – like protein content, the number of calories will vary greatly from bar to bar. Certain bars will have as little as 70 calories, whilst others might have more than 400. The bar that you choose will depend on your overall goals. Most people are trying to lose weight, are on calorie restricted diets and should therefore opt for bars that have fewer calories. On the other hand, if you are trying to gain weight, choose a bar that has more calories, provided a significant amount of it comes protein.
  • Added ingredients – protein on its own tastes pretty bad, which is why other ingredients are combined with it to make the bars more palatable. You should therefore keep an eye on these added ingredients and watch out for bars with large amounts of sugar. Excessive sugar consumption brings with it many health issues; it overloads the liver, can cause insulin resistance & cancer and contributes to weight gain. Opt for bars that have little added sugar and more natural ingredients such as almonds and chia seeds.

Finding the perfect bar might not be possible, so if you want, you can make your own protein bars at home. That way, you get to decide exactly what goes in them.

This recipe makes use of oats, whey protein, dried cranberries, organic peanut butter, honey, almond milk, slivered almonds, dark chocolate, cinnamon, vanilla extract and apple sauce. I have made these bars and definitely recommend them. You can find similar recipes online and can tweak them to suit your requirements.

Conclusion

Protein bars can be good for you, so long as you choose the right type. Opt for bars that have a high protein to carb ratio and low amounts of sugar. Alternatively, make your own bars at home.

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