Choosing a Healthy Protein Bar

You Can't Judge a Bar by Its Wrapper—but Reading the Label Can Help

If you've ever scanned the protein bar section of your local supermarket, pharmacy, or big-box store, the experience may have made your head swim. The options, it seems, are endless. What's more, protein bars can vary enormously in terms of important factors like calories, fat, sugars, additives, and other ingredients. If you don't read labels carefully you may find yourself downing something more akin to a candy bar than to a truly nutritious and protein-packed mini-meal or snack.

What's more, protein bars can be costly, even though many of them contain easy-to-obtain and inexpensive ingredients that most people could put together at home for a fraction of the price of a pre-packaged product. That said, you can't beat the convenience of a protein bar when you could use an energy boost and don't have time for a sit-down meal.

But before you start packing protein bars in your gym bag or backpack, it's important to have a sense of how much protein you really need to eat each day—an amount that varies depending on a number of individual factors—so that you can figure out how to healthfully fit protein bars into your diet. From there you can start shopping for the bars that fit the bill in terms of nutrition, flavor, and cost.

Calculating Your Protein Needs

Protein is vital to many functions in the body, but the body can't produce this macronutrient—it has to come from food. When dietary protein is broken down during digestion, compounds called amino acids are formed: These are the building blocks of the protein the body uses to build and maintain muscles and organs. Protein also is vital to the production of blood, connective tissue, antibodies, enzymes, and even hair.

Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for Protein

The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight, according to Harvard Health (roughly your body weight multiplied by 0.36), but this rule doesn't take into account certain factors that can impact an individual's protein needs.

Since protein is necessary for building muscle, folks who are very active—athletes, say, or people with physically demanding jobs—should eat a bit more. The same is true of women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. Bodybuilders tend to eat even more protein than the average person in order to support muscle growth. This calculator from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) can help you home in on your daily protein requirements (along with the recommended amounts of other nutrients) based on age, sex, activity level, and other factors.

Another way to look at ideal protein intake is to consider how much you eat at individual sittings. A 2015 study determined that most people, especially those who exercise with the goal of improving the ratio of body fat to lean muscle tissue, should eat between 25 and 35 grams of protein at every meal.

The richest sources of dietary protein are meats, poultry, fish and shellfish, eggs, and milk and other dairy products. But there are plenty of plant sources of protein as well, including beans and legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. These are all foods that are easy to include in a balanced diet, so if you if you eat a variety of them in ample quantities each day, you probably get plenty of protein.

The trick when it comes to picking your protein sources is to stick with those that are low in saturated fat and processed carbs and rich in nutrients. You may be better off eating a 3-ounce salmon steak (17 grams of protein), for example, than a richly marbled sirloin steak (23 grams of protein).

Keep in mind as well that eating too much protein can tax the kidneys and so people who are predisposed to kidney disease should be careful not to overdo their protein intake, according to the Mayo Clinic.

How Much Protein Do You Need?

Bellying Up to the Protein Bar

If you're going to include protein bars in your diet—either as a regular between-meal snack, as a grab-and-go option when you don't have time for a full meal, or as a part of a weight-loss or weight-gain strategy—reading and understanding the ingredients labels on the different types of bars is key to choosing the healthiest options for you. Here are some general guidelines to consider:

  • Protein content. For a between meal or pre- or post-workout snack, look for a bar that has at least 20 grams of protein. A meal-replacement bar should have at least 30 grams of protein. If your favorite bar comes in under these parameters, you can munch a handful of nuts to make up the difference. Do take a less is more approach to these guidelines: The body can digest only between 20 and 40 grams of protein in one sitting. If you routinely eat more than that not only will you not benefit, the unused calories can lead to weight gain.
  • Protein type. The protein in bars typically comes from dairy or plant sources. The most common are whey; soy; eggs; milk; rice; peas; and hemp. If you have any allergies or sensitives (you're lactose intolerant, for instance), be sure to choose a bar that's based on a type of protein you can safely eat.
  • Calories. If you're looking for a bar to eat between meals, stick to one that has around 220 to 250 calories. A protein bar that subs for a full meal can have might have 300 to 400 calories.
  • Fat. Ten to 15 grams of total fat is ideal and no more than two grams of saturated fat is ideal. Steer clear of unhealthy fats like partially hydrogenated oils.
  • Fiber. This element is key: Fiber is filling, so the more fiber in a bar, the more likely it is to keep your belly satisfied until your next snack or meal. Don't settle for fewer than three to five grams of fiber in a protein bar.
  • Sugar. Beware protein bars that rival candy bars in terms of sugar content. Some get their sweetness from as many as 30 grams of added sugar—when the ideal is around five grams or less. Artificial sweeteners (such as erythritol, sorbitol, and maltitol) aren't a better option: They often cause bloating and gas.

If you're trying to lose weight, eating a carefully selected protein bar between meals can help to curb your appetite so that you don't head for the candy aisle or fill up on high-fat, sodium-packed snacks. Protein bars also can pad your calorie intake if you're trying to gain weight. weight. If either of these is your goal, work with a nutritionist to figure out how to most effectively work protein bars into your diet.

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