A Healthy Snack or an Unhealthy Treat? The Truth About Protein Bars

There was a time when people would look at you strangely if you said you were eating a protein bar, but these days they are so common that entire supermarket sections are devoted to different flavors and brands.

And while they can also vary in price, they all have one thing in common: they are not cheap, and they all claim to offer a significant source of vital nutrients and protein.

However, taking a protein bar before a workout or as a meal replacement may seem like a healthier option than some alternatives, but is it really the best thing we can do?

Laurenne O’Reilly, personal nutrition and health expert, says demand for protein bars is on the rise as people realize that high quality protein is important for bone and muscle health, as well as fluid balance, hormone regulation and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. the immune system.

But while getting enough protein (about 45g to 75g per day, depending on body weight) is essential, she says she’s “worried” about people using protein bars as a convenient snack or meal replacement, and she advises looking for better alternatives.

“The quality of protein bars on the market varies depending on the sugar and fat content, as well as additional ingredients such as preservatives and additives. But we are protected in terms of health claims because the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) defines “high protein” as a condition in which at least 20 percent of a food’s energy content comes from protein.

But while many [of the bars] have a high level of protein with a good combination of amino acid building blocks and many of them also contain good quality ingredients, what they lack, especially if used as a snack or meal replacement, is very important vitamins and minerals that our bodies need to function , which are best found in whole foods.”

O’Reilly recommends using protein bars only for post-workout recovery or when protein requirements are not being met through a healthy and balanced diet.

“The key to a healthy diet is to eat as many fresh and pure ingredients as possible, while avoiding added sugar and artificial ingredients whenever possible,” she says.

“For those who want to increase their protein intake or are looking for a variety of proteins in their diet, there are many plant and animal sources available.

“You need to aim for a variety of plant proteins, nuts and seeds, vegetables, grains and animal proteins such as eggs, yogurt, cheese, meat, fish or poultry to get the best range of proteins in your diet.

“Not only does this help us meet our basic protein needs to stay healthy, but it’s also important for those who train hard or recover from illness.”

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Laurenne O’Reilly says people are worried about using protein bars as a meal replacement. Photo: Tiberio Coroliuc

Jane McClenaghan, a nutritionist based in Belfast, agrees that we are all looking for easy ways to incorporate healthy nutrients into our diets.

Protein bars are convenient and filling, she says, and because many of them are chocolate-based, “our sweet tooth loves them.” But it’s important to read labels properly before buying and decide if this is the best option available.

“Protein is made up of amino acids, which are the building blocks for every cell in our body, so we need it for energy production, our immune system, brain health, and pretty much everything else,” says McClenaghan.

“It’s important for growth and recovery, but it also helps us feel fuller for longer, so having enough in your diet is important for weight loss.”

Protein bars have become “the newest choice for those looking for a ‘healthy’ snack between meals,” she says, “but it’s important to understand that many of these bars are highly processed. If you read behind the label of some of the most popular bars, you will likely find a list of sweeteners, glucose syrup, emulsifiers, palm oil, and flavors.

“If you consider all the ingredients to be real food, then go for it, but I would advise eating bars as a meal from time to time, and not a regular part of your diet. Many of these are high in salt and sugar, so pay attention to the sugar content and aim for 5g or less per 100g.”

The ingredients also differ from bar to bar, she says.

“While some bars are based on nuts and seeds, whole grains like oats or quinoa, and some dried fruits, they are in a completely different nutritional league, giving you a decent amount of vitamins, minerals and healthy fats, even more healthy, whole food options should not be a daily part of your diet, but should be used as an occasional meal.”

McClenaghan says most protein bars on the market contain 10-20 grams of protein. Adults are advised to eat 0.75 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, “so for someone who is 11 stone, that’s 52.5 grams per day.”

“We need more than that when we’re sick, exercising a lot, or having a physically demanding job — but our protein intake should be split up throughout the day. So aim for a palm-sized serving of protein-rich food at every meal.”

Eggs, meat, fish, chicken, nuts and seeds, legumes, natural yogurt and cheese are good sources of protein, she says.

“So I’d say you’d be better off spending your money on better food than protein bars — get some natural yogurt, a sugar-free sliced ​​apple with nut butter, or edamame beans. This way you get more nutrients and save some money.”

Dublin-based nutritionist Orla Walsh says protein bars can be used as a healthy alternative to other sugary snacks, but they can cause minor digestive issues and are quite expensive, so she agrees it’s worth looking into other alternatives.

“Protein bars grew in popularity as protein research expanded,” she says. “We always knew that we needed enough protein to support muscle and bone growth and development, but we didn’t know that we needed about 20 grams every three to five hours.”

Walsh says these bars often contain 20 grams of protein, “that’s about as much protein as most adults need to stimulate muscle growth and recovery.” “They can be tasty, portable, have a long shelf life, and help with hunger, so they have their uses, and if you like a chocolate bar but want to make a healthier choice, this is an option.

“Protein and fiber help us feel full and keep us full,” she adds, “and while they don’t taste as good as chocolate, protein bars do contain protein and fiber. They typically contain about 200 calories, which is less than a chocolate bar and may have a more positive impact on future food choices.”

But protein bars have their drawbacks, she says. “They often contain sweeteners that can cause bloating and flatulence. I would advise people to pay attention to the amount of protein per serving and the calorie supply. Aim for something that provides about 20 grams of protein in about 200 calories.

“And contrary to popular belief, nuts are not actually a source of protein — they are a healthy source of fat. To get 20 grams of protein from nuts, you need to eat over 600 calories of nuts.”

There are other products that contain the same amount of protein as these bars, but with fewer calories and for less money, says Walsh.

“For example, a can of fish, a liter of milk, three boiled eggs, or a serving of cottage cheese or Greek yogurt. Also, it’s worth noting that most homemade protein bars actually contain more carbs and fat than protein.”

Food for thought.