Protein Bars: Yes Or No?

Granola bar
You rarely ever can have an easy time choosing an protein bar…wherever you go, there are just far too many of them, and it’s so difficult to figure out which one is the best one (and which one doesn’t taste like tree bark). Or if you should even bother eating one at all.

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To make the decision a little easier, think about why you want a bar in the first place. Additional protein? A handy snack? A post-workout meal? Whatever your reasoning, remember that these bars are not a necessary part of a healthy, balanced diet.

Before you buy, remember these pros and cons:

Energy Bar Pros…

There are a lot of reasons why energy bars are so popular. In general, energy bars:

  • Can help meet your energy (calorie) needs
  • Can help meet your nutritional needs, especially if you need help getting calcium, zinc, vitamin D, vitamin B-12, folic acid, protein or fiber
  • Are portable, convenient and pre-packaged
  • Have a long shelf life and don’t require refrigeration

Energy Bar Cons…

  • Excessive nutrients. Energy bars can contribute to an excessive intake of nutrients, especially if you are eating more than one bar daily, take a multivitamin supplement, and eat other fortified (enriched) foods and beverages.
  • The dangers of over-supplementation vary from minor intestinal discomforts (diarrhea and constipation) to liver disease, nerve damage or even death.
  • Excessive calories. Energy bars may contribute to a high caloric intake, which can lead to weight gain.
  • Cost. At $1.00 to $2.00 a bar, this convenience food can quickly become a major expense on your grocery bill.
  • Abdominal discomforts. Some energy bars (especially low-sugar or low-carb varieties) contain sugar alcohols, which can cause bloating, gas and diarrhea in some individuals.
  • Lack of data. There is very little research to support the actual need for energy bars. They are not a magical food and should not be used as a constant replacement for whole foods in your diet.
  • Processing. Energy bars are a highly processed food, whereas whole, unprocessed foods should be the staples of a healthy diet.
  • Additives. Some energy bars contain additional herbal ingredients. There is no data to show that any of these herbs are effective. Herbs have no standards regarding potency or safety, and many result dangerous allergic and drug interactions.

To make sure the next bar you eat isn’t just a glorified candy bar masquerading as healthy, use the following checklist, based on your needs—meal replacement, afternoon snack, or workout fuel.

Meal Replacement Bars

When lunch is out of reach, an energy bar can be used on occasion. Adding a piece of fruit, some raw veggies, and a serving of yogurt or milk can help round out this quick, on-the-go meal.

Read the nutrition label to find a bar that contains:

  • About 200-300 calories
  • 2.5 to 5 grams of fiber
  • Less than 20 grams of sugar
  • Less than 2.5 grams saturated fat and 0 grams trans fat
  • About 30% of your RDA for vitamins and minerals (optional)
  • Approximately 40% carbohydrates (20-30 grams), 30% protein (15-22 grams) and 30% fat (7-10 grams or less)

Afternoon Snack Bars

For your afternoon snack, be aware that many energy bars have a calorie level similar to candy bars. If you are watching your calories or trying to lose weight, it can be difficult to find a low-calorie bar that doesn’t contain sugar alcohols (see “Cons” above).

Eating half of an energy bar or choosing another type of snack might be a better idea for waist-watchers. For individuals who aren’t looking to lose weight, energy bars are still better choices than candy bars because they contain added nutritional benefits.

Read the nutrition label to find a bar that contains:

  • About 150-200 calories
  • At least 1.5 grams of fiber
  • Less than 15 grams of sugar
  • Less than 2 grams saturated fat and 0 grams trans fat
  • About 30% of your RDA for vitamins and minerals (optional)
  • Approximately 40%-60% carbohydrates (15-30 grams), 20%-30% protein (7-15 grams) and 20%-30% fat (3-7 grams or less)

Workout Fuel

Before hitting the gym or starting a long run, your body needs carbohydrates. It is best to avoid protein, fat, fiber and sugar alcohols, all of which can delay the emptying time of the stomach and slow digestion, causing cramps and sluggish energy levels. Energy bars are usually too high in protein, fat, fiber, and possibly sugar alcohols to be used for pre-exercise nourishment. Instead, try another carbohydrate-rich food.

During your workout, energy bars are not an appropriate refueling choice because aerobic and high-intensity exercises require blood flow to the muscles, not to the stomach for the digestion of foods. After exercising for more than 60-90 minutes, consider a sports drink or sports gel to boost your energy levels, promote hydration, and balance electrolytes in the body.

Energy bars may work for low-intensity, very long-duration activities such as a long, slow hike or bike ride. (During lower-intensity exercise, less blood is diverted to the muscles.)

After your exercise session, your body needs mostly carbohydrates (to replenish glycogen stores in the muscles), some protein (to help repair damaged muscle tissue), and a little fat (for cellular repair). Eating a “real” and complete meal is your best bet. But if you cannot eat a meal within two hours working out, then an energy bar paired with a glass of water and a piece of fruit is a good option. Look for a meal replacement bar (see examples above) with at least 30 grams of carbohydrate, 10 grams (or more) of protein, and 5-10 gram of fat.

Bar Alternatives

Don’t ever feel that you have to rely on bars to meet your calorie and nutritional needs. These snack ideas provide energy, nutrition and flavor in a convenient, budget-friendly package:

  • Fresh fruits: apples, oranges, pears, plums, grapes, bananas
  • Individually packaged fruit and applesauce
  • Yogurt or string cheese
  • Whole grain crackers (plain or with cheese or peanut butter)
  • Bagels and muffins
  • Homemade trail mix
  • Granola bars
  • Carton of milk or juice
  • Graham crackers

Avoid Diet Sabotage At Work

A man in a suit holding an apple
A typical day at the office: You rush off with no breakfast. By morning tea time you’re onto your third coffee. Since it’s a tea break you go for a large creamy latté and a big muffin. Lunch rolls around and you grab something quickly without thinking. By afternoon you’re feeling tired and groggy, so you go hit the snack box or vending machine and gulp down a Red Bull…

Welcome to the busy working lifestyle – where the combination of poor nutrition and high stress make for a sick and tired person – and most probably overweight as well.

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But fear not, you can survive your workplace without sabotaging your weight-loss efforts.

Counting Calories at Work: Coping With Treats
Whether it’s birthday cake or your co-worker’s candy jar calling your name, suffering through day after day of temptation is difficult for anyone.

“Out of sight is probably the best approach,” says Donna L. Weihofen, RD, MS, nutritionist at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics in Madison. Weihofen cites a study that compared people’s snacking behavior when tempted by candy in a clear glass bowl on a nearby desk with candy in an opaque bowl at a distance and found, not surprisingly, that people snack less when the source of temptation is hard to scope out. “Make a rule that food has to be in the break room where you see it less often.” As for birthday cake, a little nibble during the celebration won’t hurt — just know your limits.

Counting Calories at Work: Surviving the Business Lunch and Dinner
Eating out is always a challenge when you’re on a diet. Weihofen is a big advocate of the “calorie bargain” — choosing tasty, filling foods that are low in calories and available on almost every menu if you look for them.

“I never have pasta because it adds up too fast. Have a little filet or fish and a baked potato and salad with dressing on the side. You can do really well in a restaurant if you make the meal plainer,” she says. Weihofen also recommends shrimp (as long as it isn’t fried) and says to steer clear of sweetened or alcoholic drinks.

Counting Calories at Work: Brown Bag, Cafeteria, or Fast Food?
A more common problem is what to eat for lunch on a daily basis. Whether you bring your own, swing by the office cafeteria, or pick from the fast food joints near your office, you can still be successful with counting calories:

• Brown bag for more control. If you pack your own lunch, you can know exactly how many calories are in it, whether you make a salad or heat up a frozen meal in the office microwave. But, she admits, planning your brown bag can be a hassle and there will be days when it doesn’t work out.

• Be selective in the cafeteria line. With a little practice, you will be able to find choices that are filling and tasty but don’t break your diet, such as salad (skip the cheese, nuts, and dressing), baked chicken and veggies, or yogurt and fruit. Some cafeterias will make nutritional information available if you ask.

• Get smart about fast food. Look at the nutritional analysis online or at the restaurant to find out which items offer you the best options for calorie counting before you order. If you can’t do the research, stick with foods that are not fried (like baked chicken sandwiches) or are fresh (like salad, hold the dressing).

Counting Calories at Work: Creating a Healthier Workplace
The easiest way to affect your immediate team may be to bring in healthy snacks such as a fruit or veggie platter occasionally.

Employers are increasingly aware that it is in their interest to help prevent costly health conditions such as diabetes and obesity, which means there may be opportunities for you to help make your office a healthier workplace.

If you work at a large company, talk to your human resources director, building management, or facilities services about how to get involved with decisions about vending machines and the cafeteria menu. Chances are you aren’t the only one who would like to see a baked fish option and multi-grain bread sandwiches on the menu, along with healthier options in the vending machine.