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Are protein bars good for you? Dietitians reveal the healthiest options

A protein bar can be a filling snack or a "glorified candy bar," experts say.
/ Source: TODAY

Whether you're rushing out the door in the morning or scrounging for lunch at an airport, a protein bar may be the most convenient, filling food you can find. But are protein bars actually good for you?

We all need to eat a hefty amount of protein every single day, Caroline Susie, a registered dietitian based in Dallas, Texas, and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, tells

The base recommendation is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, she says, but each person's individual protein needs will differ. Someone older or more active may need 1 gram or even 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram, she says. But that doesn't mean you should automatically resort to supplements, like protein bars or shakes, to meet those needs.

"When you look at how much added sugar and saturated fat is in there," Susie says, "some of them (are) essentially glorified candy bars."

While there are times when protein bars may be your best option for a quick, satisfying snack, dietitians tell that they should probably not be your first choice. And, when you're choosing a protein bar, there are some very important factors to take into account.

How healthy are protein bars?

Protein bars, like other protein supplements, can be a helpful way to get some filling nutrients when you have no other options. But it's usually a better idea to meet your protein needs through foods first.

“I think about protein bars as a hangry hero," Whitney Linsenmeyer, Ph.D., assistant professor at Saint Louis University and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, tells

“I’ll use them if I really need something to eat and I have no other options, but they’re not meant to be a meal replacement,” she says. “So we’re not using them to replace whole foods.”

Overall, protein bars can be a lifesaver when you’re in a pinch. But it’s important to resist the urge to rely on them too frequently, the experts agree. And if you do need to resort to a protein bar, take time to investigate the label so you know exactly what you’re getting.

When should you eat a protein bar?

If you need something on the go as a snack or while traveling, protein bars are an exceptionally convenient option.

"We've all been there where we've had a protein bar for lunch at an airport," Linsenmeyer says. Adding some freshness whenever possible — an apple or cup of veggies, for instance — can help make that feel like a more well-rounded meal, she says.

Protein bars can also be an appealing option after strength training when you're trying to build muscle. "There's that 45-to-60-minute window after someone does strength training where your muscles are like a sponge," Susie says. "Getting a high-quality protein in to help your muscles repair, rebuild and recover faster is just a huge opportunity." 

So, on the way home from resistance training at the gym may be a good time to get in a big helping of protein at once, perhaps in the form of a bar or protein shake. (Of course, Susie says, there are plenty of high-protein whole foods that could also fit the bill.)

And even then, "I'm hoping that is something that's tiding you over to your next meal; that is not your meal," Susie adds. 

What to look for in a healthy protein bar:

When selecting a protein bar, it's a good idea to check the nutrition label to ensure you're getting what you need.

The experts recommend looking for a protein bar that:

Contains at least 10 grams of high-quality protein

Ideally, that protein comes from whole-food sources like eggs, nuts, seeds or nut butters, which you should see listed among the first ingredients. Soy and whey protein are also high-quality complete protein sources you might find in a bar, Linsenmeyer says.

Other plant-based types of protein can be helpful but generally don't contain all the essential amino acids. That's why they're usually considered incomplete proteins, Linsenmeyer says. And if you rely on plant-based protein frequently, you should take extra care to get your protein from a variety of sources so that you don't miss out on any of the essential amino acids too much.

Has fiber, but not too much

While fiber is crucial for gut health and helps keep you feeling full, having too much at once could lead to gastrointestinal symptoms, the experts warn. Susie recommends no more than 12 to 13 grams of fiber in a protein bar.

Comes with minimal added sugar

You want the protein bar to taste good, of course. But some bars on the market have as much as 30 grams of added sugar, Susie says, which isn't that far from a candy bar. "At that point, I would rather just have the candy bar, frankly," Linsenmeyer says.

There's no recommended daily allowance for added sugars, but the American Heart Association recommends limiting daily added sugar to 24 grams for women and 36 grams for men.

Contains a reasonable amount of calories

Some bars can be “small in size, but very energy-dense,” Linsenmeyer says, which “might take some people by surprise” because it doesn’t feel like you’re eating very much.

For a snack, Susie recommends sticking with a protein bar that has about 200 calories. And if you're stuck using the protein bar to replace a meal, it's better to have whole foods on the side, like a banana or handful of nuts, rather than try to get a higher-calorie bar to meet your needs, Susie says.

Doesn't go too hard on sugar alcohols

The dietitians spoke to also recommend keeping an eye on the sugar alcohols in the protein bar, which includes common sweeteners like mannitol, sorbitol, erythritol and xylitol.

For people who have to regulate their blood sugar levels, such as people with diabetes, sugar alcohols can be valuable tools, Susie says. "But too much of the sugar alcohols also can lead to some gastric distress," she says, such as bloating, gas and diarrhea. 

Other fast, easy high-protein options:

People often gravitate to protein bars because they're fast, easy and convenient sources of nutrition.

However, there are plenty of other snack options that are less processed than a protein bar — yet just as convenient and filling when you're looking to grab something on the way out the door, the experts say.

For instance:

  • A container of Greek yogurt, cottage cheese or overnight oats
  • A whole-grain waffle or tortilla with peanut butter
  • Hard-boiled eggs
  • A handful of nuts or trail mix
  • Whole-grain crackers with cheese or peanut butter

A protein bar every once in a while isn't going to make or break your nutrition plan, the experts say. Sometimes, a bar really is the best option available. But some protein bars contain enough calories and sugar to be, essentially, candy bars.

So, take care to look at the ingredients and the nutrition label when choosing a protein bar so you can make the healthiest choice for you.