4 Tips for Choosing a Healthy Protein Bar
This blog has not been approved by your local health department and is not intended to provide diagnosis, treatment, or medical advice.
In this article:
- 1. Consider Your Calorie Needs
- 2. Check the Protein Amount and Type
- 3. Consider the Sugar Type and Fiber Amount
- 4. Find Flavors You Actually Like
Whenever you’re on the go and need a quick protein-packed snack, protein bars are a convenient option. Their popularity as a totable, nutrient-dense snack has led to a boom in the protein bar market over the last decade. As a result, a trip down the protein-bar aisle at the grocery store presents you with a wide away of brands and flavors.
From whey protein bars and soy protein bars to vegan protein bars, paleo protein bars, and countless others, there’s a protein bar for every niche and way of eating out there. The options can feel dizzying.
With so many types of protein bars on the market, how do you find one that is nutritious, fits your lifestyle and nutrient needs, and, importantly, tastes good?
In this article, I’ll walk you through four steps to choosing the best protein bar for your nutritional needs and help you find one you love!
The first step in picking the perfect protein bar is to consider how it fits into the scope of your daily diet. If you’re not counting calories or macronutrients and you’re not super concerned with weight management, you may choose to skip this step.
For those of us who aim for a daily caloric goal or ratio of macronutrients, considering your needs and the nutritional makeup of the bar is important to ensure a particular protein bar fits your diet. Whether you consume protein bars regularly or every now and then, it’s helpful to have a list of protein bars that generally fit within your daily nutritional goals.
For example, different brands of protein bars, and even different flavors within the same brand, can vary greatly in the number of calories they provide. A typical protein bar can offer anywhere from 220 calories all the way up to 410 calories.
If your daily caloric need is around 2,000 calories per day, a protein bar containing 410 calories makes up a large portion of your caloric intake—over 20% of your daily need—and may take away from other nutrient-dense meals you could be eating throughout the day.
For most of us, finding a protein bar that is lower in calories generally aligns better with a balanced diet. However, if you’re bulking up or trying to increase your caloric intake, opting for a higher calorie protein bar can be a strategic move.
Once you’ve narrowed down your options to protein bars that fit well within your calorie goals, it’s time to consider the type and amount of protein in the bars.
Types of Protein in Protein Bars
Look for the nutrition ingredients list on the label to determine what type of protein is used in a bar. Typically, the protein type used in the bar will be the first ingredient(s).
If you follow a vegan diet look for plant-based protein bars, which typically use pea or soy protein.
How Much Protein Should Your Bar Contain?
Next, consider how much protein each bar provides.
If you’re consuming the protein bar by itself, you’ll want to look for a bar with a bit more protein in it. The more protein a bar contains, the more it will fill you up and satisfy your hunger. As a general rule of thumb, I try to look for protein bars with 20 to 30 grams of protein if I’m consuming the bar as a stand-alone snack.
On the flip side, if you plan to eat the protein bar along with another high-protein food, you might want a bar with a moderate amount of protein. For example, you might pair a protein bar that contains about 12 grams of protein with a small cup of plain Greek yogurt. Eaten together, these foods provide a good amount of protein and balance of macronutrients.
It may be useful to keep a variety of protein bars with varying amounts of protein on hand so you can choose the one that is most appropriate for your needs on a given day. For instance, if you’re traveling and the only food you’re bringing is a protein bar, choose one that will provide a higher amount of protein so you aren’t hungry on your travels.
How much and what type of sugar is used in a protein bar is important for anyone—but especially for those who are trying to limit their overall sugar intake or pay attention to what types of sugar they consume. Obviously, if you are trying to limit your sugar intake, you’ll want to look for a bar that aligns with the rest of your day’s nutrition.
If you don’t consume much sugar throughout the rest of your day, the amount of sugar in your protein bar may be of less concern. But if your diet tends to be high in added sugar, you’ll want to steer clear of sugar-laden bars and opt for a low-sugar option instead.
Some protein bars contain sugar alcohols to lower the sugar content without sacrificing sweetness. While some people enjoy eating sweetened foods without the added sugar, sugar alcohols can cause digestive discomfort for others.
Sugar alcohols will be listed in the nutrition information on the label of your bar. Common sugar alcohols include:
If you feel bloated or have an upset stomach after consuming a protein bar with sugar alcohols, make a mental note of that ingredient and work to find a bar that uses other sweeteners. Sugar alcohols affect each body differently, so experiment a bit to find a bar that works best for you.
Most of us could use more fiber in our diets. By some estimates, only 5% of people in the U.S. meet their daily fiber needs.1
If you’re aiming to meet the recommended fiber intake of 28 to 34 grams per day for men or 22 to 28 grams for women, a high fiber protein bar can get you a step closer to your goal.2 High fiber bars often contain up to 10 grams of fiber, which is about a third of your daily recommendation.
But keep in mind, there can be too much of a good thing. Protein bars with a ton of fiber can lead to digestive discomfort in some individuals.
If high fiber protein bars upset your stomach, look for protein bars that are on the lighter side when it comes to fiber. Or look specifically for protein bars with types of fiber that sit better with your stomach.
The last step is the most fun! The best way to find tasty protein bars is to experiment. Now that you’ve honed your criteria and narrowed your search, it’s time to explore protein bars in lots of flavors from different brands.
Let’s say you’re looking for a plant-based protein bar with 15 to 25 grams of protein and moderate levels of sugar and fiber. With this information, you can now filter through bars that meet your specific criteria and start your personal taste test.
We are creatures of habit. Too often, people are afraid to stray from what they know and avoid branching out. But if you don’t try lots of brands and flavors, you may never find a protein bar that you love and meets your needs. With countless options on the market, there has never been a better time to try out different protein bars and find one you truly love.
And once you do find a protein bar you love, stock up on it! Have enough on hand so when you need one you can get one—even if they are out of stock at the store. Keep in mind, if you love a niche, smaller brand protein bar, it’s unlikely you’ll find it at gas stations, airports, or other places you might be trying to find a snack.
Protein bars can be convenient, easy snacks when you’re on the go or post-workout. But to make sure they are helping you meet your nutrition goals rather than hindering you, it’s important to choose one that aligns with your daily plan.
When choosing a protein bar, remember to consider the calorie content, make sure it provides enough protein, identify how much sugar and what kind of sweeteners it contains, and finally, make sure it tastes good!
- Quagliani D, Felt-Gunderson P. Closing America’s Fiber Intake Gap: Communication Strategies From a Food and Fiber Summit. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine. 2017;11(1):80. doi:10.1177/1559827615588079
- Agriculture USD of, Services USD of H and H. Dietary guidelines for Americans 2020-2025. Am J Clin Nutr. 2020;9. doi:10.1093/ajcn/34.1.121