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A variety of protein bars

The Dos and Don’ts of Protein Bars, According to Experts

There’s a lot of debate on the internet about whether protein bars are healthy. It can be pretty confusing because a walk into a health store or even your average grocery store’s protein bar section has box upon box of health-food jargon and claims that make you believe these are healthy snack bars. So, what gives?

Protein bars and healthy snack bars are what we call functional foods. Functional foods are defined as foods that offer additional nutritional benefits. Protein bars are a prime example—they’re a typical granola or snack bar with added protein.

Grenade carb killa chocolate chip cookie dough protein bar

Functional foods, like other health supplements, are not a well-regulated term in Canada or elsewhere. Additionally, like other health supplements, you should use protein bars and healthy snack bars along with other functional foods to supplement your nutrition. Meaning they shouldn’t be your primary source of protein, fats, carbs, and various micronutrients you need daily.

Rather than weigh in on the “are they healthy” debate, we’d like to offer and guide of dos and don’ts for selecting a protein bar or healthy snack bar. This is assuming that when you reach for a snack bar, you’re hoping to have a relatively healthy snack instead of something like a candy bar or the like.

Shop Protein Bars and Snacks

The Dos: Things to Look for in a Healthy Snack Bar or Protein Bar 

1. Do be Intentional with Your Food

It’s a good idea to always be intentional with your food, especially when you’re considering a functional food. Ask yourself: “what’s my goal?” Do you want to:

  • Increase your protein?
  • Meet a calorie or carb goal?
  • Hold you over until your next meal?

Any one of these goals is fine, but by being aware of what you’re trying to achieve, you can select a healthy snack bar that’s going to help you achieve what you’ve set out to do. Otherwise, you could be consuming something with way too many calories for your particular goal. 

2. Do be Cognizant of the Calories in Your Healthy Snack Bar

Cookies & Cream Quest Protein Bar

Once you’ve recognized the goal you’re trying to achieve with a healthy snack bar, consider the calories. Like any other food, the macronutrients account for the calories in a bar.

  • Carbohydrates have 4 calories per gram
  • Protein has 4 calories per gram, and
  • Fats have 9 calories per gram

Protein bars are obviously relatively high in protein, and as they are jacked up granola bars, they’re usually high in carbohydrates as well. It could go either way with fats, but you can see that increased protein in a naturally dense carb snack will be high in calories.

We find that the average healthy snack bar contains anywhere from 200-300 calories. It’s easy for these calories to sneak up on you if you’re not aware, and suddenly you notice you are gaining when you didn’t intend to be. So, make sure the calories of your healthy snack bar are in line with your goals. 

3. Do Read the Label

smart sweets fish nutrition label

In addition to considering your goal and taking note of the calorie content, you should also become familiar with nutrition labels if you’re not already. Check the protein, carb, fat, and fibre content and ensure they’re in line with your goals.

For example, if you’re following the keto diet, you want to ensure that your healthy snack bar is high in fats and protein while staying as low as possible in carbohydrates.

If you’re trying to build muscle, you probably want lots of protein with a few carbs and not much fat. Alternatively, if you’re simply trying to lose weight, you probably want a bar with a decent amount of protein and not much else to ensure it’s low in calories. By now, you see why it’s essential to familiarize yourself with the nutrition label so that you can select the right bar for you. 

4. Do Watch for Sugar Content and Sugar Alcohols

Typically, we recommend keeping sugar consumption to a minimum, especially when we’re consuming things like healthy snack bars. Unfortunately, most Canadians consume far too much sugar, which has various adverse health effects.

Ideally, a healthy snack bar or protein bar should contain fewer than 10 grams of sugar. Anything over 10 grams should be considered a sweet treat, and you could trade in the protein bar for a candy bar.

In addition to watching the sugar content, you might want to be on the lookout for sugar alcohols. While sugar alcohols appear to be much safer than their artificial sweetener counterparts, consuming too many can lead to some digestive tract discomfort. Additionally, some studies indicate sugar alcohols don’t contribute to weight loss over time.

sugar cubes on purple background

It can be confusing when the ingredient list doesn’t show added sugar, but the bar is super sweet. This is a good indicator that sugar alcohols are at work, requiring a bit more digging. Check the ingredient list for any of the following:

  • mannitol
  • sorbitol
  • xylitol
  • lactitol
  • isomalt
  • maltitol
  • hydrogenated starch hydrolysates

Sugar alcohols aren’t inherently bad, but they can bother some people, while others don’t like the taste. You only have to look out for sugar alcohols if they don’t work for you.

5. Do Get Familiar with Ingredients to Avoid in Protein Bars

Speaking of checking that ingredient list, you’ll want to get familiar with this as well. At first and even second (the nutrition label), a bar can look pretty good. However, when you reach the ingredient list, it’s full of confusing, hard-to-say, mystery ingredients.

You’ll want to look for these ingredients to avoid:

  • hydrogenated oils
  • high-fructose corn syrup
  • food colouring
  • artificial flavouring
  • and those sugar alcohols we mentioned above

The Don’ts: Things to Avoid in Protein Bars and Healthy Snack Bars

1. Don’t Fall for the Label Alone

Different types of protein bars in a circle on a table

By now, it might be obvious that you should avoid looking at a bar’s label and deeming it healthy based on first glance and buzz words. It sounds easy, but it can be trickier than you might imagine.

Humans are naturally very visual creatures, and there are entire marketing departments dedicated to ensuring you purchase their product! So, resist the urge to grab the most visually appealing box that mentions some popular “health” phrases, and always resolve to examine the packaging a little closer.

Check for:

  • calories
  • carbs, fats, and proteins
  • sugar content
  • fibre
  • ingredient list for those nasties we listed above 

2. Don’t Ignore How You Feel After Eating Your Protein Bar

Even if you do your due diligence and check all the boxes as far as choices for your particular goals and situation, it’s important to go further than just deciding then and there that this bar is healthy.

“Healthy” is a relative term. For example, peanuts are generally regarded as a relatively healthy food. However, we wouldn’t consider consuming peanuts healthy for someone with a deadly peanut allergy, would we?

So, this is where some mindfulness comes into play. Protein bars are commonly filled with a lot of common food allergens like:

  • tree nuts
  • dairy
  • eggs
  • soy

In addition, many ingredients can be common inflammatory foods. So, picking the healthiest snack bar goes beyond ingredients, as we’ve talked about up to this point. Obviously, you should avoid known allergens and ingredients that don’t sit well with you. In the event that you don’t have any known ingredients to avoid, pay attention to how you feel after eating a bar.

Some questions to ask yourself in the hours or days following eating a new bar are:

man in jeans and a t-shirt holding his stomach
  • Am I bloated?
  • Is my stomach upset?
  • How are my bowel movements?
  • How is my skin
  • How do I feel overall?

If you’re feeling off in any of the above ways (or any other way), consider that the healthy snack bar you selected was not an appropriate choice and keep trying to find a better fit. 

3. Don’t Eat More than One Protein Bar per Day

Although it can be tempting (especially if you find a tasty protein bar), it is best to eat no more than one bar per day. Regardless of how healthy the bar you found is, a varied diet is always best, and as we stated earlier, functional foods should be used to supplement your typical healthy meals and snacks.

In addition to cutting into your otherwise varied foods, eating more than one bar could lead to consuming too much sugar or sugar alcohol and too much fibre. Not to mention the carbohydrates can sneak up on you, and too much protein isn’t a good thing either.

4. Don’t Use Protein Bars as a Meal Replacement

In addition to ensuring you’re not consuming more than one protein bar a day, you should also make sure you’re not replacing your meals with bars alone—even if the goal is to lose weight.

You can still include a bar in your meal replacement; just make sure to balance out that meal. For example, by adding an apple or another low-calorie fruit, some milk, and some nuts, you can have a more balanced meal and still cut back on your calories (compared to a normal meal).

You can also achieve this with a meal replacement shake, and some people find it’s easier to use shakes to replace meals and include a bar as another snack.

Shop Meal Replacement Shakes 

Our Recommendations for Healthy Snack Bars and Protein Bars

Now that we’ve discussed selecting the right snack bar for you, allow us to list our recommendations. These are according to various health and fitness goals you might have.

Lowest-Calorie Protein Bar

Built Brands Built Bar

Double Chocolate Built Bar Protein Bar

We mentioned that, on average, protein bars contain about 200-300 calories per serving. So, if you’re trying to cut some calories, bars might not be the easiest, most helpful way to do so. That is unless you’re replacing a meal with a bar alone (and you already know you shouldn’t do that).

Hope is not lost because the Built Bars contain between 130 and 180 calories depending on the flavour you chose, with most flavours falling at the lower end. Now, we know what you’re probably thinking—"they probably taste like crap,” but that’s not the case! On the contrary, most of our customers rave about the taste saying they taste wonderful and have a great texture. 

Lower-Carb Healthy Snack Bar

Quest Nutrition Quest Protein Bar

If you’re not-quite-keto, but you’re still trying to watch your carbohydrate intake, you should reach for a Quest Protein Bar. They taste great, and with a huge 15 gram serving of fibre, they contain only 6 grams of net carbs.

The Quest brand has a bit of a cult following, and people are die-hard Quest Bar lovers. While the texture is that of a typical protein bar, the taste is something you’re going to love. Our customers agree that the taste is phenomenal and love how full they feel after eating one. Of course, that fullness factor is thanks to that carb content we mentioned!

Keto-Friendly Snack Bar

ANS Performance Keto Wow Healthy Snack Bar

Keto WOW triple chocolate cake protein bar
Now, if you are keto, we recommend the Keto Wow bar by ANS Performance. It’s low in calories, carbs, and sugars. This bar isn’t particularly dense in protein, at 8 grams per serving, but it’s got 14 grams of total fat to help hit your macro goals.

With a fibre serving of 10 grams, Keto Wow bars are only 4 net carbs per serving, making them our best option for those doing the ketogenic diet.

Highest-Protein Healthy Snack Bar

Quest Nutrition Birthday Cake Protein Bar

We already bragged on Quest Protein bars a bit, but they’re more than just our low-carb option. The Birthday Cake flavoured Quest Bar has our highest protein content. Each serving contains 21 grams of protein.

In addition, this flavour also has just 10 net carbs and is reasonably low-calorie at 180 calories.

Best Meal Replacement Protein Bar

MTS Nutrition Outright Healthy Snack Bar

Chocolate chip peanut butter MTS Nutrition outright bar

If you are looking to replace an entire meal with your bar, try the Outright Bar. Its nutrient dense with:

  • 280 calories
  • 3.5 grams of fat
  • 25 grams of carbs
  • 16 grams of sugar
  • 3 grams of fibre
  • 16 grams of protein 

Our customers love the flavour of these bars, and we like the macro breakdown for those who need a meal replacement. However, we still recommend adding some fruit and nuts to round out the meal.

We hope this guide helps you the next time you’re wandering through the protein bar aisle, trying to find the healthiest snack bar for you!

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