Protein bars are a popular snack food designed to be a convenient source of nutrition.
Many people enjoy them because they’re a quick way to add protein and other nutrients to a busy and active lifestyle.
Given the wide variety of protein bars on the market, it’s essential to know that not all protein bars are created equal.
This article reviews whether protein bars are healthy, what benefits they may offer, and the best ways to incorporate them into your lifestyle.
Protein bar nutrition
The nutrient composition of protein bars can differ significantly between brands — and even between flavors.
This is mainly due to their varying ingredients. Many protein bars may be made from dates, dried fruit, nuts and seeds, and whole grains like oats or quinoa.
The average protein bar contains 5–10 grams of fat, 25–35 grams of carbs, and 5–10 grams of fiber.
In addition to offering protein and carbs, many protein bars are a good source of micronutrients, such as calcium, B vitamins, potassium, and iron.
When examining ingredient labels, be aware that some protein bars use a proprietary blend of ingredients and don’t disclose any of their details on the packaging.
Many protein bars also contain high amounts of added sugar and use unhealthy sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup, which adds excess fructose to your diet and can increase your risk of fatty liver, obesity, and diabetes when consumed in high amounts.
Generally, most protein bars offer 150–400 calories and 10–20 grams of protein, although some contain closer to 30 grams of protein per serving.
The source of protein also varies. Some bars feature yogurt powder, milk, or dairy proteins like casein and whey, while others use plant-based sources like soy, pea, or brown rice. Some contain egg whites, while others rely on nuts and seeds as a primary protein source.
Moreover, some protein bars use highly concentrated protein sources like whey or soy protein isolates instead of less processed, whole food protein options.
Summary: The nutritional profiles of protein bars can vary substantially between brands and flavors, depending on the ingredients used. This influences the calorie, protein, fat, and fiber contents, as well as which vitamins and minerals a protein bar offers.
Potential benefits of protein bars
While it’s easy to grab a protein bar off the shelf whenever you’re hungry, there are certain instances in which they may be particularly beneficial.
Convenient source of nutrients
Protein bars can be a simple, ready-to-eat, nutritious snack. They come in various flavors and typically last a while, making them a convenient item to keep on hand.
If you’re looking for something to have as a midday snack, a well-rounded bar containing a reasonable amount of protein and high-quality ingredients may be a practical option for your lifestyle.
The protein and carb contents of protein bars may make them a good choice for a pre-workout or post-workout snack that can boost energy for exercise or aid muscle repair afterward.
Moreover, some protein bars are a good source of dietary fiber, which is essential for digestive health and may help prevent overeating between meals.
Finally, many protein bars are a good source of essential vitamins and minerals, such as calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, vitamin E, and B vitamins, helping you meet your daily needs for these micronutrients.
Many people look to protein bars to help support their weight loss journey.
Some research indicates that high protein diets support healthy weight loss to a greater extent than diets containing a standard amount of protein. This is likely due to the filling effects of protein, which can curb your appetite and help prevent overeating.
Note that if you choose to utilize protein bars for this purpose, healthy weight loss also requires a balanced diet and regular exercise.
Suggested read: Post-workout nutrition: What to eat after a workout
To gain weight, you must consume more calories than you burn daily. If this is your goal, protein bars may be a helpful addition to your diet.
Many protein bars are calorie dense, meaning they provide a significant number of calories in just one serving, making it easy to add calories without having to eat a lot of extra food.
For example, some protein bars may contain upwards of 350 calories per bar. These can easily be consumed between meals to add extra calories to your diet and promote weight gain.
Still, even when your intent is to gain weight, opt for protein bars that provide wholesome ingredients rather than those packed with added sugar and additives.
Protein bars are often a quick way to replace a meal, especially breakfast.
While a protein bar doesn’t compare to a breakfast made with various healthy whole foods, some may work well in a pinch.
If you’re occasionally looking for a quick breakfast, protein bars on the higher calorie end that don’t contain added sugar or hydrogenated oils may be a good option.
If you’re a very active person with a lot of muscle mass or someone looking to gain muscle, adding more protein to your diet may aid your efforts.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that endurance athletes and strength-trained athletes consume 0.54–0.77 grams of protein per pound (1.2–1.7 grams per kg) of body weight.
Research suggests that supplementing with protein may increase muscle mass and performance when your overall physical activity level and diet are adequate.
Summary: Protein bars can be a convenient way to add carbs, protein, vitamins, and minerals to your diet. Also, they may curb appetite, fuel a workout, or support muscle repair after exercise. Still, they can’t replace whole foods’ quality and nutrient composition.
Downsides and precautions
Countless protein bar options are available today. This can make it challenging to determine which is best for you, and easy to choose one that may not be a good fit for your goals.
Suggested read: Are smoothies good for you?
Some protein bars are so high in calories and added sugar that they might as well be in the candy aisle.
To enhance the flavor, many use added sweeteners, which can vary from more natural sweeteners like dates or stevia to unhealthy ones like high fructose corn syrup. Many protein bars use cane sugar or honey, which may not align with your personal preferences.
Additionally, while the fat in some protein bars often comes from whole nuts and seeds, others use highly processed plant oils, like palm, canola, peanut, or soybean oil.
If you’re eating protein bars solely for their protein, remember that most people consume more protein than they need, so you may already be getting enough of this nutrient.
Eating protein in excess doesn’t appear to benefit the average person’s health, and doing so may be harmful in some cases.
One review of 32 human studies found that eating more protein than the recommended dietary allowance of 0.36 grams per pound (0.8 grams per kg) of body weight was associated with an increased risk of cancer, heart disease, and bone, liver, and kidney disorders.
However, other studies report that a high daily protein intake of around 1.4 grams per pound (3 grams per kg) of body weight is safe, at least in the short term.
For example, a study of 14 resistance-trained men showed that a daily protein intake of over 1.5 grams per pound (3.3 grams per kg) of body weight for six months was not associated with any adverse health effects. Other studies have shown similar results.
Although more research on the long-term health effects of high protein diets is needed, it’s likely that for most people, consuming the recommended 0.36 grams of protein per pound (0.8 grams per kg) of body weight daily is sufficient.
Nevertheless, remember that some people, including athletes, pregnant and breastfeeding women, and those with certain chronic illnesses, need more protein daily than the general population.
Lastly, protein bars can vary significantly in their cost and may not be worth their price tag. In addition to checking for high-quality ingredients, it may help to compare the unit price and determine which brands offer the most significant value.
The right protein bar for you depends on your goals and values. Select those with a short ingredient list that primarily uses whole foods rather than highly processed ingredients. Choosing protein bars that have minimal to no added sugars is also recommended.
Suggested read: 26 foods that help you build lean muscle
Summary: Protein bars vary in nutritional content and ingredients. Some are high in added sugar and may be an unnecessary source of excessive protein. Examine the packaging to determine whether a protein bar meets your personal goals and needs.
Other protein-rich foods
If you’re looking for other ways to incorporate more protein-rich foods into your diet, here are a few ideas:
- raw nuts and seeds
- hard-boiled eggs
- nut and seed butter
- unsweetened yogurt
- dairy or high-protein nondairy milk
- cottage cheese
- beans and lentils
- tofu and tempeh
- lean meats and fish
- certain whole grains
Meeting your protein needs is easy with a well-balanced diet. Incorporate some healthy protein-rich foods into each meal and snack to help you feel fuller longer, fuel your workouts, and support an overall healthy lifestyle.
Summary: Protein bars aren’t the only way to add more protein to your diet. Incorporating protein-rich whole foods into your meals and snacks is an excellent way to meet your protein needs and support a healthy lifestyle.
Protein bars are a convenient way to add more protein and other nutrients to your diet. However, not all protein bars are created equal.
Some are high in calories and added sugar and use ingredients you may want to avoid. Others may be an appropriate choice to fuel your workout, stabilize your blood sugar throughout the day, or even start your morning on the go.
There are plenty of other ways to get more protein in your diet, but if you eat protein bars, look at the nutrition panel and ingredient list to help you decide which is best for your lifestyle.