Is It Bad to Eat a Protein Bar Every Day?
I'm just going to say it: I'm addicted to protein bars. I have one every day.
Sure, in the scheme of things, there are far worse food obsessions. But over the past year, I've been working on cleaning up my diet by prioritizing whole, fresh foods, and I had one last thing holding me back. Yep, protein bars.
They're just so easy to eat on the go, and they can often pack 20 grams of protein into one tasty package. After chatting with some other health-minded friends, I found out that I'm not alone in my love of protein bars. And I'm also not alone in having an inkling that they're probably not the healthiest food choice to make on the reg. (BTW, people are cooking with protein bars and it's amazing.)
Like anything else, it depends on who you ask. Some dietitians are very pro-protein bars; others are anti, but here's the general consensus: "I would classify protein bars as a supplement or a processed food," says Jill Merkel, a registered dietitian who focuses on sports performance. "Therefore, I would recommend protein bars only after doing a thorough diet assessment and making sure the client or athlete is getting enough whole foods first." (Related: I Gave Up Processed Foods for a Year and This Is What Happened)
That being said, Merkel still thinks protein bars can have a place in a well-rounded diet, especially since they're so convenient. "I would prefer a client or athlete has a protein bar to consume post-workout or for a midday snack rather than have nothing." If it's unlikely that you're going to tote a whole foods snack with you wherever you're going, then go ahead: grab the protein bar.
And while most dietitians agree that whole foods are generally better, protein bars can still help people make healthier choices overall. "The best diet is one that an individual can stick with," points out Gabrielle Fundaro, Ph.D., a nutrition consultant for Renaissance Periodization.
Yes, protein bars are processed, but that doesn't automatically make them "bad." "Absolutist or black-and-white approaches to dieting, where some foods are 'bad' or 'dirty,' actually lead to much lower rates of adherence to the diet," says Fundaro. "If a person uses a daily protein bar as part of an overall nutritious diet that includes plenty of vegetables, fruits, healthy fats, whole grains, and other lean protein sources, there's no reason to remove it or force them to replace it." (Woohoo!)
Of course, if the protein bar was adding extra calories and causing unintended weight gain, or causing stomach issues because of processed ingredients, then Fundaro says she'd probably recommend looking into an alternative snack or post-workout fuel option.
How to Choose a Healthy Protein Bar
So basically, it's fine to eat protein bars on the reg, provided that you're getting enough whole foods at your other meals. But that doesn't mean every protein bar is created equal. Here's what to look for if you're going to eat one.
Calories: "First, look at the calories and serving size," says Fundaro. "Some popular protein-style cookies, for example, contain two servings per package and about 500 calories total. This may approach one-third of the daily energy needs of a small, sedentary female." In other words, you want to make sure that if you're eating a protein bar as a snack, it actually has a "snack-size" number of calories.
Ingredients: Next up, check out the ingredients list. Is it long? "Oftentimes, protein bars are loaded with hard-to-pronounce ingredients," says Merkel. "The fewer ingredients, the better."
Protein: If you're eating protein bars to up your protein intake rather than just as a convenient snack, then this one is key. "Many nutrition bars on the market these days are actually energy bars rather than protein bars," Merkel points out. In other words, they have plenty of calories, so will likely provide you with energy, but are not high-protein enough to be considered protein bars. "Depending on one's overall calorie and protein needs, a good place to start is at least 10g of protein for a satisfying snack. For an athlete post-workout, I would recommend aiming for 15 to 30g of protein, depending on their body size."