As lives get busy and food quality lowers, people are often on the hunt to find quick fixes to meet their daily essential nutrients quota. For many, munching on a protein bar is the way to go. After all, you can have them on the go; they taste great and help meet your protein, vitamin, and mineral needs. So what's not to love? Well, apparently, a lot. (Depends on who you ask!)
However, not all protein bars are the same, and some can be intelligently incorporated into holistic nutrition, even as it says no to processed foods!
Read on as we discuss if and when you can incorporate protein bars in a holistic diet and how to identify cues for when you're overdoing it!
There is little to no place for processed foods, refined sugars, or artificial flavors in a holistic diet. Instead, a nutritionist-approved way to enrich your body with essential nutrients is to eat whole foods that provide sufficient macro and micronutrients.
You will be whipping up healthy recipes rich in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables for every meal in an ideal world. But, let's be realistic, meal prep is hard, and there is just not enough time in the day! So, often, protein-rich nutrition bars prove to be a popular alternative.
What do experts say about protein bar consumption?
There is a divide in opinion between health professionals regarding such bars. However, the consensus is that you can incorporate protein bars in a well-balanced diet, where you primarily get energy from whole foods, healthy fats, lean protein, fruits, and vegetables.
On days when you are on the go and won't be able to have a whole foods snack, sure, grab a protein bar for a quick bite!
However, the problem with even the healthiest protein bars is that their convenience is often their biggest vice, as people start relying on them as a primary protein source. For this reason, experts do not rate them as a healthy snack but rather an occasional treat when more nutritious meals aren't an option.
But, to adopt any lifestyle, holistic or otherwise, the key lies in making it easy to follow. So, if most of your food sources are whole, raw, and organic, experts agree there is no reason you cannot indulge in a protein bar now and then!
As with everything in holistic nutrition, you need to see what works best for your individual needs. For example, athletes and people who engage in vigorous exercises require more protein. Thus a protein bar snack may benefit them more than other people. So, it's all about catering to your unique dietary needs.
The usual expert recommendation is not to have more than one protein bar a day. While it can be challenging to consume whole food ingredients for your daily protein intake, it is the ideal way, and, in holistic nutrition, it is a necessary lifestyle change. However, you can use nutrition bars as an occasional pick-me-up snack for an instant energy boost.
And, even with a single protein bar a day, some choices may be loaded with added sugar, carbs, and calories. So, it's best to restrict yourself to a protein bar with a maximum of 300 calories per day. Ideally, the best protein bar should be protein-heavy, have some fiber and carbs, and add small amounts of sugar.
Like all processed foods, not all nutrition bars are equal. Their nutritional value does not just change with brands but also with flavors within the same brand. For example, a chocolate chip cookie dough bar will not provide the same nutrients as the almond butter dark chocolate flavor.
And there are many choices, from gluten-free, low sugar protein bars to vegan protein bar options with plant-based protein to those that use milk protein isolate as their protein source. Thus, their nutritional value differs. However, for the sake of this article, we will use general estimations to provide an average dietary value of this (sometimes) healthy treat.
Varying ingredients like nuts, seeds, dates, and whole grains often make up the best protein bars, dictating their overall nutritional content.
A protein bar with calories between 150 to 400 grams has around 10 to 20 grams of protein. It also generally has 5 to 10 grams of fiber, 5 to 10 grams of fat, and 25 to 35 grams of carbs. Many bars often contain high levels of added sugar; thus, it's best to avoid such options in a holistic diet, which restricts processed sugar use. However, depending on what ingredients are used, the best healthy protein bars can be an easy way to top up on micronutrients like calcium, iron, potassium, and vitamins.
The protein source for these snack bars also varies. Some have animal-based proteins like whey protein isolate, while others feature a plant-based protein option, like organic pea protein, brown rice protein, and soy protein isolate. Remember that soy and whey protein is highly processed compared to other whole food protein options like egg whites, seeds (hello pumpkin seed protein!), nuts, and nut butter (like everyone's favorite peanut butter).
Pea protein isolate is the way to go for people looking for a plant-based protein bar. This plant-based protein is free of most allergens and is excellent for digestion.
On the other hand, whey protein isolate is much cheaper and is considered a complete protein because of the presence of all essential amino acids, which some pea proteins lack.
However, whey protein is much harder to digest in comparison and pea protein can be easily complemented with another protein source to create a complete protein.
Protein bars get a bad rep as some brands have such high caloric value and sugar that they might as well be candy bars. So, they can make you gain weight if you are not mindful of what is in the bar.
However, keep in mind that you can gain weight even from the best protein bars, with all vital nutrients, if you take in more calories than you are burning. That said, some people actually prefer high protein bars with more carbs and calories as they can aid in muscle building. So, weight gain from such a bar can be desirable if it aligns with your health goals.
With holistic health, choosing the best protein bar for you is a strictly personal decision. However, if you are looking for a quick answer, Leah Kaufman, a registered dietitian, and nutritionist, recommends choosing bars with ideally less than 300 calories and a maximum of seven grams of added sugars.
For a more detailed answer, keep reading!
Depending on your daily recommended caloric intake, ensure you only "snack" on these bars, and they don't contribute to a considerable chunk of your daily energy needs. Some bars have two serving sizes per pack, so be mindful during consumption.
Aim for at least 10 grams of protein. However, depending on your lifestyle, high functioning individuals and athletes may even be better off picking bars with as much as 30 grams of protein.
If you're confused about deciphering the "net carbs" on nutrition bar labels, go for brands that ideally have less than 5 grams of added sugar and provide at least 5 grams of fiber. This is especially important in bars with low carbs using sugar alcohol, which does not digest quickly and can cause bloating.
A protein snack bar might have more calories coming from fat rather than protein. While these healthy fats (from sources such as nuts and seeds) can help you feel fuller, they are not a good idea for carbs and protein absorption post-workout.
And lastly, please consider the texture (some are crunchy while others have a chewy texture) and the taste of the bar you are buying. Various flavors like peanut butter chocolate, dark chocolate, and chocolate coconut can satiate your sweet tooth. Go for the best-tasting protein bars to make this snack an enjoyable treat.
While a protein bar is an excellent way to curb hunger pangs between meals, it is not enough to have as a meal on its own. Since such bars are usually around 200 calories, adding 150 to 300 calories more calories is good to make a complete meal. Here are quick ideas from proteinbar.com:
Your health goals determine the best time to eat protein-rich snacks: do you want to keep up lean body mass or aim for muscle recovery? Or if you're only looking to curb hunger?
In general, the best time to eat such a snack is post-workout, which helps grow and recover muscle. However, you can also have them between subsequent meals if they are more than four hours apart. However, if you plan on working out after that, make sure there is a gap of an or two to allow digestion.
You can include protein bars in a holistic diet in moderation (typically one serving per day), only when otherwise taking a well-rounded diet. For example, protein bars can serve as snacks when your main diet comprises whole foods, and you are following other healthy practices of avoiding refined sugars and saturated fat.
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