They’re in everything from gyms to supermarkets to Amazon. So they must be healthy, right? In this guide, we’ll cover whether these tasty workout snacks are hiding a dark secret and if they could actually be making you fat, why that is and what some healthy alternatives are.
Protein bars are often seen as a convenient and healthy snack by people who are trying to limit their carb and fat intake and/or up their protein. They have become incredibly popular over the last few years.
There was a time when you had to go to a specialist bodybuilding store to get protein bars. Now, they are available in most supermarkets and come in a wide variety of flavours, and popular chocolate bar brands even have high protein versions of their leading bars.
The quick answer: will protein bars make me fat?
Not all protein bars are created equally; some are no different to going into a shop and picking up a bar of confectionary. Regardless of how healthy a bar is or isn’t, eating too many of them, or not working your snack into your daily calorie plan will result in you gaining wait and could make you fat.
It’s essential therefore to check what’s in your bar and to work it into your overall calorie plan.
High protein, but what else are they packing?
We have to admit, some of the protein bars on the market taste great…and if you read the label, you can see why. Commercial protein bars are often just confectionary in disguise.
Along with the 10-15g of protein, they can have up to 20g of sugar and most clock in at around 200-250 calories.
Compared to a standard chocolate bar, they are a “healthier” option, but they are not a healthy snack. Labelling food as ‘high protein’ is a marketing ploy intended to play on the association between a high protein diet and weight loss/muscle gain.
Food packaging legislation requires high protein foods to contain at least 20% of their calorific value from protein, however, the remaining 80% can come from any of the other macronutrients and therefore does not guarantee a healthy or low-calorie food.
How to tell if a protein bar will make you fat!
Flipping a protein bar over and checking its ingredients is the best way to check if this bar will make your belly grow faster than your muscles. Check the nutrition table and watch out for sugars, carbs, and unhealthy fats. If it’s a long list of ingredients, be suspicious. Healthy products generally have shorter, simpler lists of what’s in them.
Some of the more serious protein bars, produced by companies that specialise in gym supplement products, purposefully control the amount of sugar and fat in their bars because they know that their customers are watching their macros.
Use common sense – If the main ingredient is chocolate then that bar is not healthy and will likely not help your body in any way.
These protein bars have to get their taste from somewhere though and are typically packed full of chemicals and additives. Needless to say, healthy food does not have 101 unpronounceable ingredients.
Regularly consuming artificial sweeteners, chemicals and preservatives have been linked with a whole host of health complaints including laxative effects; constipation, bloating, flatulence, blood sugar dips, acne, and headaches.
There is also research to suggest that they have a harmful effect on the microbiome (the bacteria that lives in your gut and plays an important role in digestion regularity).
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Why do protein bars make you fat?
Now we know that there are two types of protein bar – the commercial ones that are essentially high protein confectionary and the gym-focused ones that are macro-controlled but full of nasties – can either play a role in a weight loss diet?
Whichever you go for, you are looking at around 200-250 calories. From a calorie deficit perspective, they represent an easy way to chomp through your daily allowance without satisfying yourself.
Ironically, the bars that are seemingly more geared towards weight loss because of their low sugar and fat content can be worse because the chemicals they use to replace these macronutrients trigger intense sugar cravings and hunger queues.
So, the bars themselves may not make you fat but the overeating that they induce sure will.
Protein bar alternatives that won’t make you fat
Protein bars tend to be relatively expensive for what they are, but people like them because they are convenient and they think that they are a “healthy” way to have a sweet treat. However, there are better ways to nourish yourself:
High protein plain yoghurt (skyr, Greek, natural). Avoid artificially sweetened ones. If you want some sweetness, either look for one made with a fruit layer or add some honey or fruits. Sweetening your yoghurt yourself is the best way to control your sugar consumption and, as long as you do not go overboard, the calories added should not matter too much.
Make your own protein bars. All you need is a recipe (the internet is full of them) and a food processor. The bars you make yourself are typically much softer and fresher than commercial bars and you can ensure that only nutritious whole foods are included.
Basically, they won’t be full of artificial sweeteners, E numbers and other unhealthy ingredients. They only require 10 mins of prep time and then you have a whole batch to keep you going.
Chia seed pudding. Soak chia seeds in milk overnight and BAM! You will have a healthy pudding that can be eaten on the go. Again, there are loads of recipes on the internet for this, so you are bound to find something you like. Do not be put off by the calorie or fat content of chia seeds, they pass through the body mostly undigested so we do not absorb all of the nutrition from them.
Be careful buying lots of bars if you don’t trust your discipline
Be careful buying protein bars in bulk. Having an easy-to-reach stack of those bad boys can be a temptation too far for many people (me included). I find if I have protein bars in the house I’ll normally get through around two per day, finding room to fit one in for a snack mid-morning or afternoon. While it does wonders for my energy, it’s 600+ calories extra per day.
Why do you eat protein bars?
If you do not like the sound of these alternatives, think about why you like protein bars so much. Perhaps you are in the habit of eating them whenever you feel nibbley.
In which case, look at your diet and consider whether your main meals are satisfying enough. If you like them because they feel like a “healthy” way to have a treat, then recognise that you want a sweet treat and allow yourself to have one (within your calorie allowance).
We would recommend a commercial protein bar in this case. It is a bit healthier than a confectionary bar and it does not contain nasty chemicals (just good old-fashioned sugar!), which can cause more problems in the long term than the few macros that they save.
Reference and Further Reading
- NCBI – Artificial sweeteners as a sugar substitute: Are they really safe?
- NCBI – The Effect of Protein Source on the Physicochemical, Nutritional Properties and Microstructure of High-Protein Bars Intended for Physically Active People
- WebMD – Nutrition Bars: Healthy or Hype?
- Health Harvard – Are protein bars really just candy bars in disguise?
- Wikipedia – Protein bar