When we're running out of the gym after a quick workout, it can be hard to get in all the nutrition your body needs. We end up feeling really hungry really fast, so sometimes we have to reach for the most convenient thing — and that often happens to be a protein bar. But just because the wrapper claims it's good for you, how do you know if it's actually what your body needs in order to recover and maintain its energy?
"A good protein bar is only as effective as its ingredients," Dr. Luiza Petre, board-certified cardiologist and weight-management specialist, told POPSUGAR. "Do not just read the front wrapper; delve into the actual composition of ingredients on the back."
Dr. Petre says protein bars certainly have their place in our lives. "Research shows that few women come close to the ideal of 25 to 35 grams of protein at every meal that is required to improve the ratio of body fat to muscle," she explained. "This is where a good, wholesome, high-quality, low-carbohydrate protein bar fills the niche." However, one of the biggest problems is that many protein bars are jam-packed with all kinds of additional sugar, sometimes up to 30 grams — which is more than a candy bar. Yikes.
The problem extends beyond sugar, though. Dr. Petre said you'll often find other ingredients in some bars that aren't good for you, like partially hydrogenated oils, food coloring, high-fructose corn syrup, sugar alcohols, and artificial sweeteners. "These protein bars should be avoided at all costs as they add empty calories with lab-created ingredients that can cause weight gain, allergies, and digestive distress," she advised.
Jesse Thomas, professional triathlete and CEO of Picky Bars, chimed in to agree. "You should avoid overly processed ingredients, things you can't pronounce or understand," he told POPSUGAR. Another good rule Jesse sets out is, "You should avoid extremes." Basically anything that's really high in fat, carbs, or sugar is a big no-no.
Now that you know what to dodge, how do you know what should you be looking for? "High-quality protein bars should contain GMO-free whole grains, oats, seeds, nut butters, and natural sweeteners that include brown rice, fruit, maple syrup, and coconut," Dr. Petre said. "Your bar's ingredients should be pronounceable and relatively short — always think real food."
"A healthy balance of protein, carbohydrate, and fat is the best way to deliver all the macronutrients your body needs before, during, and after exercise," Jesse added. That's exactly why he and his team created a 4:1 carb to protein ratio in their Picky Bars (my favorite is the Chai and Catch Me flavor). This is the perfect way for your body to get everything it needs before or after a tough workout.
Dr. Petre said you should be going for a bar that has between 150 to 180 calories and at least seven to 10 grams of protein. "Fiber should be three grams or more and less than 10 grams of sugar. Net carbohydrates should be less than 15 grams," she continued. (ICYMI, net carbs are when you take the total number of carbs and subtract the amount of dietary fiber.)
As for when to eat your protein bar, the answer isn't that cut-and-dry. "It depends a lot on the workout and your fueling going into it," Jesse explained. "But generally you should always eat around 200 calories within 20 minutes after a workout — again a good mixture of protein, carb, and fat." If you're feeling really hungry before a workout, though, Jesse says, "You should definitely eat something, healthy, balanced, and easily digestible" so you feel fueled for your session. "It will help you get more out of your workout and also keep you from overcompensating later with sugary or fatty snacks because your body felt robbed hours later and it's trying to make it up."
"Protein bars can be used as a healthy alternative for meals and snacking when not consumed in excess," Dr. Petre said in conclusion. Just be smart about your choices and make sure that your bar fits into your daily caloric goals. Don't forget that you can make your own healthy protein bars at home if you have the time! Try these almond chocolate protein bars or these pumpkin protein bars.