There are so many protein bars available on the market today it can be hard to choose the best one. Some, I’ve discovered during my research, are not better than candy bars!
In order to find the best, healthiest bar, we need to know what makes a protein bar healthy.
I’ve defined a set of rules, just like I’ve done previously for deciding on the best meal replacement shakes, “Choosing the Best meal replacement shakes”.
The 7 most important features of a healthy protein bar
1 – High Quality Protein (Minimum 5 grams per bar)
It’s amazing how little protein some so-called protein bars actually contain so always look for a good protein content – no less than five grams per bar.
Protein is important for so many reasons. For starters, it helps keep you fuller for longer and in doing so reduces hunger and cravings. This makes sticking to your diet much easier.
Protein is also essential for recovery after exercise and for building muscle. Too little protein will delay your recovery and could even mean your muscles shrink rather than grow.
Protein is also important for fat burning. Protein has a high thermic effect which means it requires a lot of energy to break it down. This means that up to 30% of the calories you consume from protein are used in the digestive process.
In general, when selecting the best protein bars, the more protein, the better but only if that protein is good quality. The best proteins to look for are milk and whey. Some protein bars contain soy which is not so good and some people find that soy upsets their stomachs. Learn more about protein on our guide “Beginner’s Guide to Protein Powder”.
2 – Low sugar (Less than 8 grams per bar)
If you’ve been reading my site lately, you’ll have seen how I’ve been working hard to cut down on all added sugars and find healthy ways to replace added sugar in my diet (My 20 No-Sugar days story here). Sugar is arguably the most dangerous thing you can eat – for your waist and your weight.
Some protein bars contain as much sugar as a Snickers bar so, needless to say, if you want a healthy protein bar, it should contain very little sugar. Make sure your chosen bar has no more than eight grams of sugar per serving and is preferably sugar-free.
Bars with very low sugar will help prevent your blood sugar from increasing rapidly and that will also prevent your body from producing lots of insulin. Insulin promotes fat storage and blocks fat burning so keeping a lid on insulin is very important.
Eating as little sugar as possible is the best way to prevent high blood sugar and high insulin levels so seek out protein bars with very low sugar contents.
3 – Low carbs (Less than 20 grams per bar but containing at least 3 grams of fiber)
If you are trying to lose weight you should choose a low carbohydrate bar. Carbs are not bad for you but if you want to lose weight or are mostly sedentary, you simply do not need much carbohydrate per day. Excess carbs are quickly and easily converted to fat and can often cause ongoing carb cravings.
However, if you want a post-exercise protein bar, carbs are important for speeding up your recovery after exercise. Carbs, when eaten after exercise, are quickly directed to your muscles and liver and converted to glycogen for fueling your next workout.
Fiber is important for keeping your digestive system healthy and also making you feel fuller for longer. Fiber is also calorie-free. A high fiber bar is a healthy bar!
4 – Low calorie (Women 140 up to 200 calories. Man between 170 to 300 calories)
When replacing a snack, a low calorie bar is recommended. For women, the bar should contain between 140 calories to 200 calories and for men, between 170 to 300 calories. Replacing a high calorie snack with a high calorie bar makes no sense so make sure you check the nutrition label so you know how many calories are in your bar. For some “big bars”, this may mean you need to cut it in half to avoid consuming too many calories.
However, after exercise, your body can use more calories – for women, the bar should be at least 300 calories and for men, 300 to 380 calories.
Calories are important for speeding up your recovery and food consumed straight after exercise is preferentially directed to your muscles and liver. There is no need to be scared of calories after exercise BUT you should also make sure you do not overeat either or you may gain weight.
5 – No artificial sweeteners and no sugar alcohols
To get a sweet tasting bar without using sugar, many bar manufacturers use artificial sweeteners or sugar alcohols. While your bar may now be low in sugar or even sugar free, it’s far from healthy.
Many artificial sweeteners, despite being calorie free, are unhealthy and even toxic. As chemicals, they really have no place in a healthy diet and might actually cause more problems than the solve.
Artificial sweeteners often cause cravings and even an insulin response – just like sugar does. Many artificial sweeteners also have unwanted side-effects such as headaches, joint pain, cause problems with concentration, and can be addictive – just like sugar.
Sugar alcohols are sweet and very low in calories but can cause stomach upsets, bloating, and diarrhea in sensitive individuals and can cause severe sugar cravings too. These also are best avoided.
If you want the healthiest protein bar possible, avoid both artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols.
6 – Contain healthy fats, are low in saturated fats (< 3 grams) and are free from trans fats
A low fat diet is not automatically a healthy diet. In fact, some dietary fat is essential for your body. Omega three and omega six polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats are especially important and healthy.
However, high amounts of saturated fats contain a lot of unwanted calories which is the last thing you want in a healthy protein bar. Look for bars than contain healthy fats but are low in saturated fat – definitely lower than three grams per bar.
While even saturated fat is okay in small amounts, trans fats are not. Trans fats are processed fats that are very unhealthy and should be avoided whenever possible. Check your bar is trans fat-free to avoid inadvertently consuming this very unhealthy fat. Hydrogenated vegetable oils are a common source of trans fats. More about healthy fats on my article “How to Choose Healthy Fats”.
7 – The fewer ingredients the better
The fewer ingredients a protein bar has, the healthier it is likely to be. And while some bars look like they are made of nothing but chemicals, others are very high or completely made from just a few natural ingredients. The more natural your bar, the healthier it is likely to be. Check the nutrition label on your bar and make sure the ingredient list is short and contains mostly things you recognize the name of.
Choosing the best protein bar might not always be easy but now you know exactly what to look for. I’ve also created an article specifically written to help you chose the best bar and I’ve included my three top recommendations too.
Hi Sarah! Thanks so much for this informative post. I’m new to the world of protein bars so this was really helpful to me. Is there a bar you would recommend that meets all of the above criteria? Thanks so much!
I’ve dedicated an article about my favourite, and the ones I recommend and why, healthy protein bars. It’s called “The Best Protein Bar for You”, hope you find what you’re looking for. Have a great day.