Two months ago I had a client who wanted to lose the 15 lbs she put on last year. As I delved into her typical breakfast, lunch, and dinners to get a sense of her diet it sounded pretty normal. She could have eaten more vegetables during every meal instead of saving it for dinner but otherwise nothing unusual that stood out until I asked her a different question,
Do you snack in between meals and what do you snack on?
She responded by saying she did not just eat one but TWO full size snicker bars every day before lunch.
Boom! Now I solved the sudden 15lb weight gain.
Eating an extra 500 calories a day accounted for the love handles that was forming around her waist.
My client was a 16 year old with love handles!!
The first step I had her take was to swap out those snicker bars to a healthier, lower calorie snack alternative. I made a couple of protein bar recommendations that were similar so that she wouldn’t feel like she was being deprived or deviated too far from her usual snack routine.
In the mix was a recommendation on higher protein Kind bars, Luna bars, and Oatmega bars, all of which was less than 200 calories but with much better nutrition.
I recommended she eat only 1 bar and add protein to her breakfast so she wouldn’t be starving by the time lunch rolled around.
How do I choose a protein bar?
This might sound like a no brainer substitution but if you take a closer look at the nutrition facts of some protein bars out there they are equivalent to eating a candy bar except they are advertised as a 'good source of protein'.
How to pick out a healthy protein bar is the most common type of question that I always get from my clients. Other common questions include,
- what to look for in a protein bar?
- are all protein bars the same?
- how many can I eat in a day?
To help you answer those questions here are some guidelines I use to figure out which protein bar to buy and which ones to pass.
(1) Flavor and taste
I have never bought a protein bar that had great macros in a flavor that I did not like because personally I believe that food is to be enjoyed and it should taste good. I believe that food is not just for survival and it's not just 'macros' no matter what your body composition and diet goals are.
So don’t torture yourself and completely base your choices on just the macros listing. Go ahead and pick a flavor you like. Enjoy it!
(2) Look at the fat, carbs, protein
When I flip a bar over to look at the nutrition my eyes go directly to looking for how many grams of protein the bar has.
Depending on my protein macros and what I've eaten so far, I usually opt for the higher the better, at least 20g. But again as I mentioned in my last article usually bars that have upward of 25 grams of protein or more usually have a denser, harder texture.
So if I have in my hand a bar that qualifies for 25 grams of protein what I do is try to bend the bar to get a feel for it.
Shhh... I know you’re not suppose to do this but it’s how I ‘test’ to see how hard the protein bars are. If you’ve never done this I would recommend this otherwise you’re in for a big surprise when you take a bite out of it and it’s hard like a rock.
Then I look at the carb content.
Most times the carb to protein ratio is about 1:1. But depending on your fitness goals and WHEN you are eating the bar you might opt for higher or lower carbs.
If I just completed a cardio workout then I wouldn’t mind eating something with higher carbs to replenish the glycogen in my muscles but if I had a hard, heavy workout I opt for higher protein and eat my carbs from food afterwards.
But if I’m saving my carbs for another time during the day then obviously I would go for the lower carbs. So carb content depends and it's importance is secondary to protein.
With fat I'm looking at the source and where it's from. If the bar is made from nuts the fat content will be much higher versus if it's not made from nuts.
A great delicious brand called Oatmega actually sources it's fat from responsibly wild caught fish so it has Omega-3 in it which is great! So I get my source of omega-3s AND my clean protein all in one bar.
So far Oatmega is the ONLY brand I recommend to my clients because it has clean ingredients, lower carbs, and it tastes ahhmazing!
So moving on to ingredients which is a huge one for me!! If the protein bar qualifies for 1 and 2 but not the ingredient hurdle then 95% of the time the bar goes back on the shelf.
So what do I look for?
I prefer a shorter list of ingredients because it means less processed and more likely sourced from whole foods like nuts, fruits, and whole grains.
There are the two big things I look for and stay far FAR away from in my protein bars,
- Sugar alcohols
These man made sugars were discovered in 1848 and like all sugar alcohols it doesn’t spike your insulin levels. People love it because there are no calories associated with and it tastes just like sugar.
However, they can pose a problem with digestion, cause bloat, and even lead to headaches. They come in many forms and are disguised as erythritol, sorbitol, mannitol, xylitol, and maltitol.
With zero added calories to your carbs manufacturers can label the bar as having '0g sugar'.
Since we are trending in the low carb/high protein craze right now you will find sugar alcohols hidden everywhere.
Right now on my Facebook feed people are comparing Ben and Jerry ice cream to Halo Ice Cream, a high protein ice cream that is all the rave on Facebook now.
Check out the label on the vanilla flavored Halo pint,
Sugar alcohol is the 3rd ingredient and composed of more than 60% of the Total Carbs!
To be honest, I have not tried ANY high protein ice cream and it's not to say that it probably doesn't taste good which I'm sure it does. But if I were to eat ice cream I want whole milk fat, REAL sugar and REAL cream that is unprocessed.
Why do that when you can get both protein AND ice cream at the same time you ask?!
Because simply this - your body does not process sugar alcohols and as a result it doesn't register and satisfy that sweet tooth craving you have. Instead of eating 1 serving of a regular, 100% fat ice cream to satisfy yourself you'll have to eat 2 or more servings of the sugar alcohol version.
From a health perspective we've evolved to eat whole unprocessed foods/ingredients and that is what's going to keep us healthy not substitutions or mimics of 'real' food/ingredients.
- Partially hydrogenated
The way the FDA guidelines have it is that if a product has less than 0.5 grams of trans fatty the label can be '0g transfat' so you have to look the ingredient label to figure out if it’s got trans-fat in it by looking for ‘partially hydrogenated’ anything.
Your body cannot digest or extract any nutrients from partially hydrogenated ingredients and manufacturer’s love putting this in a lot of the junk foods and fried foods we eat because it’s cheap. But a diet in partially hydrogenated foods has been linked to an increase coronary heart disease, the leading cause of death in the US.
The way I look at the damage that partially hydrogenated foods does to our bodies is like this:
Imagine a your body like a pocket watch and partially hydrogenated foods like a grain of sand.
Sure eating some hydrogenated foods won’t do you any harm right now but over your life time you accumulate those effects in your body like adding sand to the pocket watch. The watch will keep on ticking until it’s overwhelmed with so much sand that one day it'll stop ticking just like your heart.
So I avoid partially hydrogenated anything like a plaque because eventually it’ll deteriorate my health and kill me.
How many bars should I eat a day?
This is the same question I get for protein shakes so I always tell my clients that protein bars are not a substitute for real food. It’s not something to live off of eventhough I am sure you can but I prefer that my clients to get their protein sources from lean meats and plant sources before reaching for a quick on the go bar.
Of course life happens which why there are convenient protein bars but you should not rely on them for most of your diet because you were too to busy to eat real food. My recommendation would be no more than 1 bar a day to ensure you get your nutrition from varied sources.
In the end
So that's what I look for in a protein bar and I hope this article was informative.
I know we have busy lives and there are plenty of other things we'd like to do besides thinking about what we eat or fitting in a workout but keeping yourself healthy is what allows you to live the life you want.