Consumers are empowered more than ever when it comes it comes to choosing the precise products to fuel their fitness goals and healthy lifestyle ambitions. When it comes to pre-workouts, fat burners or protein powders, most are clear in their purpose. The only category of supplements that can’t seem to find its sweet spot are those elusive nutritional bars – from protein bars to fiber bars to meal replacement bars to energy bars and creatine bars (yes those exist now too). How do we choose which kind of bar we need depending on our goals? In this article I will go over many of the different types of bars that exist and how to find one productive to your ambitions.
The OG of the industry if you will, protein bars have been around long enough to call Arnold their son, starting way back in the 70’s when Pillsbury invented something called the Space Food Stick (which was more of a meal replacement bar than a protein bar). Not much has changed when it comes to protein bars, all are around 200-250 calories, 10 grams of fat, 20 grams of carbs and 20 grams of protein. A solid choice from lifters to runners. Most protein bars are either sweetened by sugar (giving them a higher carb count) or artificial sweeteners (which usually count as zero calories/carbs).
Most people decide on which protein bar they want because of that fact alone, favoring fewer calories over any negative health benefits sweeteners are claimed to have. The type of protein will also influence your choice of protein bar. Vegan and vegetarian individuals might fancy a soy isolate bar, while others are concerned of the possible estrogen enhancing properties soy has. In that case there are hemp bars or nut bars higher in protein. Most protein bars have whey concentrate as their protein source which might turn off someone who is lactose intolerant, bringing a solution in the form of whey isolate which gets rid of the lactose. Whatever you choose, most protein bars can range from one dollar to four on the higher quality end.
Meal Replacement Bars
A meal replacement bar isn’t as sure of itself as a protein bar, and tends to be more carb heavy. Most contain around 20 to 30 grams of protein, but also have upwards of 50 to 60 grams of carbs, usually including an excessive amount of sugar. Being around 300 calories, meal replacement bars are marketed towards one type of person, the person who is rushing to make their connecting flight and literally can’t spare a second to scarf down a sandwich. The reality is most of the time people who eat these bars include ectomorphs trying to gain weight and powerlifters needing to fuel their three hour workout.
These bars work wonders for those individuals, but most people who need to eat less than 4000 calories a day, meal replacement bars don’t usually fit into an individual’s diet routine. Conversely, individuals who are trying to lose weight and take this practice to the extreme might consume nothing but meal replacement bars. I do not recommend this, because even though these bars do contain a good mix of macro and micronutrients, they do not contain enough nutrients to sustain a person indefinitely. These bars should only be used by individuals who need extra calories to add to their diet or need to replace one meal, once in a blue moon because they didn’t have the time to eat a meal full of vitamins and nutrients.
Fiber bars usually double as protein bars with one difference, a low ‘net carb’ amount. What this really means is when you take away the macros from the fiber (which shouldn’t be, as I will explain) and the sugar alcohols you get the actual amount of carbs in the bar, usually in the single digits. And with 20 grams of protein to go with such a low carb count it’s a win-win situation right? Not always.
The fiber used to make these bars is called Isomalto-Oligosaccharide, or IMO. This fiber derived from synthesized starch isn’t calorie free like we are lead to believe. The rounded amount of calories in soluble fiber is about half that of regular carbs at two calories per gram. This isn’t such a bad thing though, most of us on a diet usually cut out carbs to a minimum which also limits our daily intake of dietary fiber. These bars (although not as low in calories as we are lead to believe) do give us up to 20 grams of fiber and a moderate dose of protein. With the added benefit of the IMOs being somewhat sweet, the companies making fiber protein bars can cut back on sugar making these bars a very smart choice for anyone looking for a tasty and filling post workout bar and can’t spare an entire meal worth of calories. Most run you about 200 to 300 calories, similar to other protein bars.
Being around as long as protein bars, energy bars are by design high in carbs and low in fat and protein. The main purpose of energy bars is to fuel a workout, usually endurance type sports that need quick simple carbs to get them through their run, cycling, triathlon etc. The reason why these bars are low in fats and protein comes from the idea that these macronutrients digest slowly, giving the endurance athlete a lethargic or gassy session. While carbs are easily burned for energy and digest quickly allowing the bars to be consumed soon before their aerobic activity. Not many fitness enthusiasts will gain the most benefit from these bars as they are mostly empty calories (around 250) and blood sugar spiking carbs which are only beneficial for the hardcore runner or cyclist. Anybody looking to gain muscle or lose weight should steer clear of energy bars for high protein, lower sugar alternatives.
And The Best of The Rest
The bars I’ve discussed so far take up about 90% of the market, which is in line with about 90% of the population’s needs when it comes to bars, respectively. Which is to lose weight/gain muscle and increase performance. The other 10% are specialty bars made for a small number of people including paleo bars, which are usually all natural ingredients and higher in fats/sugars. Usually because the main ingredients in these bars are dried fruits and nuts. There are vegan and vegetarian bars as discussed earlier, some high in protein but others are designed more like energy bars for performance. Much like paleo bars their main ingredients include dried fruit to sweeten the bar and nuts to give the bar a crunch and texture, usually making paleo friend bars also vegan.
Gluten free bars exist but are most likely just a by-product of many people cutting gluten out of their diet arbitrarily. Only 1% of our population actually has Celiac disease, an autoimmune disease which makes their body attack itself in the presence of gluten in the body. The other 99% of the population shouldn’t be bothered with spending extra money on gluten free bars. Lastly there are bars that contain various other bodybuilding ingredients such as amino acids or glutamine or even creatine. While there is no harm in buying these bars, most likely the inclusion of a certain popular supplement ingredient will raise the price more than if you just bought that ingredient in bulk and added to your shakes.
Take Home Message
New types of bars are showing up every day as our culture’s love for fitness is here to stay. Of course this is a good thing, with all the different diets and lifestyle variations emerging, there is most definitely a bar out there to suit your needs. Always remember though, bars are here to supplement our diet full of real food and shouldn’t replace entire meals on a normal basis. That being said, read your nutrition labels, track your macros, choose a flavor you will enjoy and try a new bar today!