For most guys, protein bars seem like a no-brainer: They promise the protein you need to feed your muscles in an ultra-convenient package, while also offering up all sorts of tasty flavors. There are now entire aisles at the grocery store filled with countless options.
With so many of these dang things on the market, it can seem like a Sisyphean task trying to find a bar that tastes good but isn’t masquerading as a candy bar full of questionable ingredients and too little protein do much good. We all shouldn’t be so quick to associate the word “protein” with healthy. And it’s important to look beyond the front-of-label promises and tempting flavors. Let the nutrition facts and ingredient list do the talking.
To help you hunt down the perfect between-meal or post-workout protein-packed option, follow these guidelines when shopping for a bar and consider picking up any of these stand-outs that play by the nutritional rules.
1. Go Bigger on Protein
For a bar that will tame hunger longer and help build your biceps, look for a bar that delivers at least 10 grams of protein (that’s more than an egg!). This can come from animal-based proteins like whey or egg white, or from plants such as pea protein and nuts.
2. Keep Calories in Mind
You may have noticed that calorie counts on bars range widely. For between-meal snacking, stick with bars that have about 250 calories or less. If you’re replacing a meal or eating a bar after a particularly arduous workout, going all the way up to 400 calories can make more sense.
3. Scan the Sugars
With flavors like fudge brownie and salted caramel, many bars straddle dessert territory. In other words, they can be sugar bombs which can be bad news for your ticker. This 2023 study in the journal BMC Medicine found that it’s not the total amount of carbs in your diet that matters for heart health but the type you eat – total added sugar intake was the strong predictor of heart disease. Ideally, you want to choose a bar with no more than 8 grams of added sugar, with a preference for the sweet stuff coming from natural sources like dried fruits or more benign low-calorie sweeteners such as monk fruit, stevia or erythritol. Luckily, nutrition labels now have to state how much added sugar is included in a bar.
4. I.D. the Fats
For a bar that is going to be easier on your heart, you want one made with healthier unsaturated fats that come from ingredients such nuts, seeds and nut butters instead of a product full of less desirable sources like palm kernel oil or anything hydrogenated.
5. Know your Grains
If a protein bar contains any grains, they should be whole such as oats or quinoa. This will give you a bar with more essential micronutrients and fiber.
6. Fight for Fiber
Fiber is important to help keep you feeling full and boost gut health, but not enough guys eat enough. It’s not essential that a protein bar also be high in fiber if your diet is already rich in high-fiber foods like vegetables and legumes, but it can be helpful to find one that has 3 grams or more per serving. With the caveat being if you’re not used to eating a lot of fiber at once, ease into bars that include high amounts of isolated fibers like chicory root or corn fiber to help side-step possible digestive woes like gas and bloating.
7. Less is More
It’s also a good idea to look for a shorter ingredient list to ensure your bar is somewhat less processed. A laundry list of mystery ingredients should be a red flag.