A. There are potentially several things wrong with protein bars, beginning with the low quality of protein often used in them (protein bars often contain many of the sub-optimal protein sources previously mentioned in this series of articles – i.e., powdered casein/caseinate, whey protein concentrate, and/or soy protein). Some protein bars do contain whey protein isolate, but in all likelihood, even the whey isolate used in protein bars will be nutritionally inferior as well.
One of the challenges in creating protein bars is preventing the bar from drying out and becoming hard and unpalatable during the shelf life of the product. To combat this challenge in recent years, whey protein manufacturers have created proteins (including versions of whey isolate) specifically for use in protein bars. These proteins are purposefully denatured to reduce their affinity for moisture. The idea is, if proteins are prevented from absorbing and attracting moisture in the first place, this reduces the chance of the protein in the bar subsequently drying out and becoming hard during its shelf life. But, as we’ve seen, denaturation of whey protein may significantly compromise many of its unique health benefits.
Protein and food bars are also often made with nut and seed butters and oils which are very concentrated sources of polyunsaturated fats, including the omega-6 fat, linoleic acid (e.g., almond butter, peanut butter, sesame butter, canola oil et al.). At Integrated Supplements, we’ve written many articles on the harmful effects of linoleic acid at the doses currently found in the modern Western diet. Because of the fats they contain, most protein and natural food bars only serve to exacerbate this excess. As we’ve documented elsewhere, the research gives every reason to believe that such lipids are disruptive to thyroid function, cellular respiration, immune function, and blood sugar control to name just a few. Because they disrupt metabolic function by so many different mechanisms, these lipids are among the most “fattening” sources of calories available.
As the ingredients they contain are sub-optimal nutrition, protein bars can hardly be expected to improve most diets. In fact, the real problem with protein bars may be that they can very easily perpetuate the practice of constant snacking on low-quality, calorically-dense processed foods. For the health- and physique-conscious individual, it’s important to realize that protein bars will more likely hinder their efforts, rather than help.
By their very nature, protein (and other “food bars”) are among the most calorically-dense foods available – i.e., they contain a high amount of calories relative to the overall weight of the food. Studies have shown that calorically dense foods can often lead to weight gain, whereas foods which are less calorically dense – i.e., foods like fruit which contain phytonutrients, fiber and water – are more filling, and may thus help with weight loss:
Quote from the above study:
Protein, fibre, and water contents of the test foods correlated positively with [satiety index] scores.
To the best of our knowledge, studies have yet to investigate how eating protein bars affects overall calorie consumption.
Of course, with the fast-paced lifestyles of today, it’s easy to see why their convenience has made protein bars staples of many people’s diets. And while protein bars have never been particularly high-quality nutrition, their quality has steadily declined even further as they’ve been increasingly marketed towards the mainstream market. Over the past several years especially, protein bar manufacturers have learned what junk-food and fast-food producers have known for many decades: nutritional content doesn’t matter much when it comes to the bottom line. In other words, if a product tastes good, it sells – almost regardless of its nutritional composition. Of course, users of protein bars will often say they want bars with a certain nutritional composition, but in the end, sales numbers don’t lie – bars with the highest fat, sugar, and calorie content are often the best sellers.
When viewed objectively based upon their ingredients and nutritional composition, the vast majority of protein bars aren’t even close to healthy food options. But marketing protein-laced candy bars as healthy foods plays into what many consumers already want to believe – that health and fitness can be achieved with almost no effort whatsoever.
Generally, those who replace meals with protein bars are consuming low-quality nutrition which is almost certain not to reduce appetite nearly as well as a healthy balanced meal. Those who use protein bars between meals are simply snacking on some of the most calorie-dense foods available anywhere – hardly a recipe for health and fitness success. Those who only eat protein bars every once in a while are on the right track, although, all things considered, some traditional candy bars may actually be better choices.
Q. Isn’t it important to eat every couple of hours to keep the metabolism going? How can a person do this with only “real” food?
A. Maintaining steady blood sugar and serum protein (albumin) levels are important goals of any healthy diet, but constant snacking usually isn’t necessary to achieve this – especially if the chosen snacks contain substances which inhibit the metabolism, as we’ve seen most protein bars and drinks do.
For the general health-conscious individual – especially one looking to lose bodyfat – the key is consuming balanced meals which enhance metabolic function instead of disrupting it. Along these lines, every effort should be made to consume nutrient-dense meals which contain (at the very least) combinations of protein and carbohydrates.
Properly-constructed meals will support healthy blood sugar, trigger the fed state, and control appetite automatically, without the need for constant snacking. At Integrated Supplements, we’ve written elsewhere about the types of foods which are likely to stimulate the appetite (e.g., starch), and the types of foods which are likely to reduce it (e.g., dairy/whey protein, fruit, certain types of fiber).
Some people, however (e.g., those with hypoglycemia and related blood sugar abnormalities), may function better on more frequent feedings throughout the course of the day. If snacks are necessary in addition to the traditional meals of breakfast lunch and dinner, there are many suitable options available “on-the-go.” These days, most convenience stores carry foods such as fruit, yogurt, cheese sticks, salads, hard-boiled eggs, and milk – all of which are far superior to the protein bars and ready-to-drink protein shakes which are often offered up as healthy convenience foods.
Q. What about those looking to build muscle? Doesn’t it take upwards of 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight to maximize muscle growth?
A. People who work out do, indeed, have a higher protein requirement than sedentary individuals. Even still, in a misguided attempt to support muscle growth, many bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts consume more protein (and overall calories) than their bodies actually need.
Evidence suggests that the often-recommended protein intake of “one gram per pound of bodyweight” for strength-training athletes is a bit high. Research shows that a more reasonable goal may be 0.8 grams per pound of bodyweight:
Quote from the above study:
A suggested recommended intake for [sedentary subjects] was 0.89 g.kg-1.day-1 [0.4 grams/lb bodyweight] and for [strength-training subjects] was 1.76 g.kg-1.day-1[0.8 grams/lb bodyweight].
For a 175-pound individual, 0.8 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight equals 140 grams of protein per day. Consuming this amount of protein daily may take a bit of planning and preparation, but it’s easily achievable through whole foods and relatively small amounts of high-quality protein supplements like whey protein isolate.
The supplement industry, however, often perpetuates the myth that “hardcore” bodybuilders need to consume significantly higher amounts of protein than this – a convenient lie which often begets a reliance on protein bars and drinks (not to mention large quantities of lower-quality/ less-expensive protein powders). Similarly, the supplement industry also has a tendency to divert consumer’s attention away from readily-available real food sources of protein and towards protein supplements. The recent marketing of casein/caseinates as “slow-digesting” proteins is a perfect example of this (milk and other dairy foods are far better sources of casein and muscle-building nutrients than casein/caseinate powders, and almost all real food proteins are slow-digesting).
In actual practice, therefore, many aspiring bodybuilders simply eat too many calories from low-quality sources.
The ironic part is, they’re not only compromising their long-term health by doing so, but their physiques as well. The chronically “pudgy” appearance of many would-be bodybuilders is often actually testament to the effectiveness of this sort of supplement marketing.