High-protein diets like paleo and keto have been popular for some time. And while nutritionists tout the benefits of high protein whole foods and making your own meals from scratch...ain't nobody got time for that. This is where protein bars seem like a great option. And they can be as long as you are educating yourself.
First, let’s talk high protein food. Meat, Eggs. Man food!
Protein is, of course, an important part of any daily diet, and according to the Mayo Clinic, “For most healthy people, a high-protein diet generally isn't harmful, particularly when followed for a short time. Such diets may help with weight loss by making you feel fuller.”
Mike, 41 says eating high protein, healthy food was one of the best diets he ever did.
“The best I have ever felt and looked was when I was very strict with my diet. For about six months, I ate nothing but chicken and fish with cruciferous vegetables with very small amounts of sweet potatoes, rice, and avocados. Also no alcohol. The transformation was pretty instant and incredible.”
However, you do need to be careful. Adding a bunch of extra protein to your regular diet could just make you gain weight. And increasing your intake of red meat and full-fat dairy can increase your risk of heart disease. You want to stick to healthy food: lean meats, nuts and whey protein instead of just grabbing a bacon cheeseburger and calling it a high-protein diet.
Then there’s the fad of eliminating carbohydrates altogether, as with the keto diet.
“Our bodies need carbs for energy. Our main source of energy is carbs,” one expert says. Eliminating carbs completely can also have other negative effects like bad breath, headaches and constipation, according to the Mayo Clinic. Not attractive. So, if you are going to do a very high-protein diet, make it a short term weight loss plan, not a lifestyle choice.
So let’s get to the part about protein bars. According to LiveStrong, the American Dietetic Association does say protein bars as meal replacements are effective for weight loss, but only if combined with whole, healthy foods. “You cannot rely entirely on meal replacements for your diet. Protein bars don't supply all the nutrients and antioxidants found in fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains.”
We asked a registered dietician, and she recommends using protein bars as a healthy on-the-go snack. And most importantly: read the label. Read the label. And, one more time: READ THE LABEL.
“If it’s made with good sources of protein and natural sweeteners as opposed to artificial, then it could be part of a healthy diet,” she says.
We know it’s no fun to stand around a grocery store reading the back of every protein bar, but if you are serious about your diet and picking out healthy food, you have to put in the work.
Protein bars are high in protein (duh) but also include carbohydrates and fiber, which are all things you need to fuel you during the day or during your workout. Look for bars that are low in sugar, and note the difference between sugar and sugar alcohols. Sugar alcohol is a natural sweetener found in fruits, and it’s a lower-calorie alternative to regular sugar. This is a good thing. Just be careful because sugar alcohols can upset your stomach if you eat too much (bloating, diarrhea, yikes). Remember: Just because your protein bar kind of tastes like candy (gross protein-y candy, but candy nonetheless when the only other thing you are eating is spinach and plain chicken) doesn’t mean you should eat them like candy.
Also keep your eye on the calories. Many protein bars are loaded with calories to help you feel full, but if you are not burning off those calories, well, you're just going to gain weight.
Protein-packed smoothies are another easy, on-the-go way people tend to get their protein, and the same basic principles apply for protein smoothies as they do for protein bars. Make sure you are being smart about the ingredients.
“If it’s made out of frozen yogurt and fruit juice, adding protein (powder) just adds more calories. Then it just becomes protein-Fortified junk food,” explains a registered dietitian. “If you're making one that has natural healthy forms of protein, then it’s good.”
So the main thing when picking out a protein bar or any high-protein snack is to make sure you educate yourself on the ingredients and are always consuming healthy food. But then you need to put that protein to work with exercise.
“Supplying your body with necessary nutrients can help you get the most from your workout. A protein bar consumed before exercising supplies you with steady energy during your activity. It also offers benefits after your workout. The amino acids found in protein bars help provide the building blocks your body needs to generate new muscle tissue, repairing the microscopic muscle tears that occur over the course of your workout,” Livestrong writes.
Protein is good. Protein helps build muscle, and as we get older, our muscle mass decreases (as you are probably painfully aware). So doing weight-bearing, muscle building exercise is very important, according to a registered dietitian.
Just snacking on a protein bar while you watch TV isn’t going to give you Popeye’s biceps.