Ok, we’ll admit it, we kinda love protein bars. Protein bars, when done right are a convenient, healthy and blummin’ delicious snack whether you’re a dieter or fitness-lover looking for your fix after hitting the gym.
Increasing the amount of protein in your diet has been shown to provide a wide range of benefits like increased muscle mass, faster recovery and increased fat burning (and who doesn’t want that!).
However, not all protein bars are cut from the same cloth, or chocolate, and some of them are little better than glorified chocolate bars. Let’s break down what makes the best protein bar...and what makes a bad one.
High In Sugar
Sugar is delicious. Don’t deny it. It’s also really not good for you if you have too much.
Why is that?
When you consume sugar a number of things occur. Sugar causes a rapid increase of blood-sugar levels. While it might give you quick burst of energy (the sugar high) the sugar crash that follows can really mess with your mood.
Further, if that burst of energy isn’t used by the body quickly, those sugars will be converted into fat by insulin, our body's blood-sugar control hormone. Insulin works hard to keep our blood sugar levels stable. Consuming too much sugar over a long period of time can result in our body developing a resistance to insulin, which in turn can lead to diabetes.
On the other hand, hard exercise can reduce your blood-sugar levels as your body utilises this efficient energy supply to fuel your muscles. When your blood-sugar levels are low you'll typically feel tired or fatigued and a quick boost of sugar can be exactly what the doctor ordered to recover your blood sugar levels.
Added sugar also causes a rise in dopamine levels, the ‘feel-good’ chemical. Dopamine is linked to general feelings of pleasure and can have a habit forming, addictive property (which can have a positive effect when it’s released during exercise!). That’s why once you’ve popped a few pieces of your favourite chocolate bar in your mouth, it’s so hard not to finish it, but maybe that’s just me.
A good protein bar should have less than 10 grams of sugar, any more than that and it’s a chocolate bar and in most situations much less sugar is even better. Our Low Sugar protein bar contains less than 2g of sugar per bar and still has a solid 20 grams of protein in the recipe.
They’re Filled with Sweeteners
Most low sugar or zero sugar protein bars contain artificial sweeteners such as maltitol or Xylitol.
Artificial Sweeteners taste a lot of sugar, but not don’t cause the excessive rise in blood sugar levels that sugars do. They don’t rot your teeth either.
We use sweeteners in our own Low Sugar Protein Bars and this allows us to keep our bars down to around 200 calories and avoid those spikes in blood-sugar levels which is important for weight loss.
Despite years of hysteria regarding sweeteners, they simply aren’t dangerous with hundreds of studies in the various common sweeteners demonstrating their safety.
For some people over-eating artificial sweeteners can result in stomach discomfort so you might need to limit how much consume.
Fat and Saturated-Fat Content
In the race to cut sugar in protein bars many products are laden with fat in order to improve the flavour and texture of their bars. While getting some fat in our diet is healthy and it plays an important role in our diet, fat is extremely high in calories and you probably don’t need us to tell you that too much of it will...probably make you fat.
Many of the health risk-myths associated with saturated fats have been debunked (check out this brilliant article by Heathline to learn more about fats).
The Type of Protein Can Make a Difference
Proteins are made up of amino acids. Altogether there are 22 amino acids that the body needs for most of its processes, the best protein sources are made up of all 22 and are referred to as ‘complete proteins’. Whey protein is an excellent example of a complete protein, which is why it’s the main protein source in our protein flapjacks and bars.
If you follow a plant-based diet, finding complete sources of protein is difficult. Whey is produced from cows milk and therefore isn’t suitable. Many vegan protein bars are made using pea protein or soy protein. Soy is one of the only plant-based complete proteins, which is why we use it in our Millionaire Crunch.
Protein Can Help You Lose Weight
A number of studies show that increasing protein intake in your diet can promote fat burning and help you lose weight.
Firstly, protein is super filling, and takes a considerable amount of energy to digest when compared to carbohydrates. If you’re trying to limit your overall calorie intake then a good serving of protein can go a long way towards reducing your appetite and help keep you away from the snack cupboard.
Eating more protein in your diet can also lead to increased fat burning. As protein takes more calories to convert into glucose (Energy!) than carbs it temporarily increases your metabolism. A high protein diet can result in between 80-100 calories burnt per day (For Free!).
Aids Recovery After Exercise
Recovery requires the building blocks of muscle: protein. The period immediately after exercise is the most critical for recovery as this promotes muscle protein synthesis and rebuilding, which ultimately can help you gain more muscle.
Interestingly, the most critical period for recovery is in the hour immediately after exercise, and it's important to provide your body with a boost of protein as, unlike carbohydrates, our body doesn't store protein for later use. It either uses it or converts it into energy.
Do You Really Need More Protein?
Now that’s a tricky question isn’t it? We’ve established that protein is important, but how much do we really need? The average male requires between 56-91 grams of protein per day, while 45 - 75 grams should be enough for your average female, although if you’re a particularly active, you’ll benefit from more.
Getting the required amount of protein in your diet day-to-day shouldn’t be difficult with a varied and healthy diet. As we’ve discussed though, if your trying to build muscle the window immediately after exercise can be hugely important for getting enough protein, which is one of those situations where a protein bar or protein cookie can be the perfect snack to get your recovery off to the ideal start.
Are protein bars healthy? If you buy the right ones, yes. Should you live on protein bars? No.
The health benefits of increasing protein in your diet are easy to see as long as you’re eating good quality sources of protein. Ideally, a good protein bar is low in sugar, reasonably low in fat and contains between 15g and 20g of protein.
Even more importantly, whether a protein snack tastes good should easily be your biggest concern.
However, protein bars are no substitute for a full and varied diet and shouldn’t be treated that way!