There was a time when you had to go to a supplement store to find protein bars, energy bars or anything like them. Now there is nearly a whole section of every grocery store dedicated to them.
If you are new to supplementing with bars, staring at the shiny wrappers stacked on top of one another and lined along your grocery shelves can be very overwhelming. Fortunately, a little information goes a long way in helping you choose a bar.
First, it’s important to get some basics out of the way: These bars were originally created for athletes. People who are serious about reaching athletic goals, whether that be weight loss, muscle gain or endurance training.
There are several different kinds of nutrition bars. The two you see most often are protein bars and energy bars. Their names say a lot, but basically protein bars are created to supplement your protein intake while energy bars are designed to give you an energy boost.
Protein bars are ideally made for people who are trying to dramatically increase their protein intake. You’ll see them mostly consumed by the same people drinking protein shakes—people who lift a lot of weights or who are trying to put on muscle mass. This doesn’t mean they aren’t okay for people who want to lose weight—but we’ll get to that in a moment.
Energy bars target people who burn a lot of calories, like endurance athletes (runners) or those who do a lot of cardio work. This is because the “energy” you are getting from an energy bar comes from calories in the form of carbohydrates. Often, these carbs come from sugar. Plain and simple.
Now, protein and energy bars have become accepted as an occasional snack, which could lead to trouble if you don’t know what you are eating.
- Not all protein bars and energy bars are “health food”
- Not all protein bars and energy bars are good for weight loss
- Not all protein bars and energy bars are good for meal replacements
- Some are nothing more than glorified and cleverly-marketed candy bars
More important than what the bar is called, is what you find on the back of the wrapper.
Deciphering energy and protein bars
The front of the wrapper is all about first impressions—it’s the make-up. The back of the wrapper is the scrubbed down version—the real nitty-gritty of what you’re getting. And that’s where you need to spend your time.
If you want a true protein bar and you are interested in gaining muscle mass—look for something with at least 15 grams of protein and a lower amount of carbohydrates. If you burn through calories and are looking for something to sustain you through your marathon training, for instance, look for something loaded with carbs. Runner’s World Magazine suggests anywhere from 20-40 grams.
Many people flock to nutrition bars, not because they need more protein or because they are running long-distances, but because they want a simple and convenient snack they can occasionally use as a meal replacement.
In those cases, look for a bar with a good balance of carbs and protein. Make sure you consider the calories too—a meal replacement that has more calories than a normal meal won’t help in your weight loss endeavors.
With all bars, pay particular attention to all of the ingredients—what is being used to sweeten the bar? While sugar is better than high fructose corn syrup, fruit is the best (you’ll see a “0 gr. of sugar” label, but check the ingredients list to make sure it does not have artificial sweeteners instead).
Are there several ingredients you can’t pronounce and are they necessary? As with any food, the simpler the better.
You’ll also find some organic, gluten-free and vegan options that fit your specific dietary needs and preferences.
Remember, you are eating protein bars or energy bars for a specific goal, and if you’re not, you might be better off with a Snickers.