With so many meal replacement and protein bars on the market it can be hard to tell which one provides the best quality nutrition.
I use meal replacement bars and also recommend them to my clients, especially if they travel. It is one of the quickest and easiest ways to replace a healthy meal, on the run. My first choice is always real food, second a meal replacement shake and third a high protein, nutrient dense meal replacement bar.
Most bars are either nutritionally unbalanced—not containing the right quantities of protein, carbohydrate, and fats to qualify as a meal replacement—and often are artificially sweetened, flavored, and colored.
Choosing a meal replacement bar can be overwhelming because there are so many claiming to have the perfect nutritional profile. A true meal replacement bar has all the protein, complex carbs, healthy fats, enzymes and nutrients of a perfectly balanced meal.
To help inform choices (and filter out the scams), here are five things to look for in a meal replacement bar.
- Low-glycemic – Carbohydrates in the form of starches and sugars are critical to deliver the body a steady source of energy for a longer period of time. But foods that are high glycemic—meaning they’re fast-absorbing sugars and/or they don’t provide much protein, fat, or fiber in addition to the carbohydrates—are known to cause a spike in blood sugar, which can be followed closely by a crash, and then hunger. Low-glycemic bars ensure a steady source of energy to keep you feeling full longer.
- Whey protein – The type of protein used in meal replacement bars matters in a big way. Whey is shown to promote more satiety and fat loss than any other kind of protein, and when paired with exercise, promotes muscle growth (1). Whey protein in its most natural and unprocessed form is described as undenatured. Research has shown that the consumption of undenatured whey protein has antioxidant effects beneficial for overall health (2).
- Maximum nutrition, minimum calories – As a meal replacement, bars should provide the nutrition normally consumed in a healthy, balanced meal. That ought to include carbohydrates, fats, and protein, but in a fraction of the calories. Carbohydrates and fats have earned a bad reputation, when in reality they are vital to the body’s ability to function. When looking for a bar, choose one that contains healthy fats, complex carbohydrates, natural sugars, fiber, and an ample amount of high-quality protein. Some bars are too high in calories while others are too low. A healthy meal replacement bar should contain around 200 to 300 calories—still promoting weight loss, but not sacrificing any nutrients or your energy levels.
- Satiety – Dieting is often associated with uncomfortable hunger that comes with cutting calories. In clinical trials, consuming a meal replacement bar has shown to curb appetite and lead to safe and sustained weight loss (3). When supplementing your diet with a low-calorie yet nutritious meal bar, cutting calories can be effortless and sustainable because your body is still being properly nourished. When meal replacement bars are filled with high-quality whey protein, they also have the benefit of providing increased satiety resulting in the consumption of fewer calories throughout the day (4). Fiber is also an important part of any diet to enhance gastrointestinal health and function and increase satiety.
- Quality – Not all health bars deliver what they claim to have in them. If the company doesn’t have an established no-compromise quality policy that involves rigorous testing, then its nutritional content could be off—by as much as 15 percent! That could mean extra calories you don’t realize you’re getting, usually from fat and sugar. Plus, if not clinically tested to be low-glycemic, you run the risk of blood sugar spikes that could thwart your health and weight-loss goals.
When you don’t have time to prepare a healthy balanced meal, instead of settling for fast food, grab a well balanced protein bar and a bottle of water…
- Acheson K, Blondel-Lubrano A, Oguey-Araymon S, et al. Protein choices targeting thermogenesis and metabolism. Am J Clin Nutr. 2011;93(3):525-34.
- Bounous G and P Gold. The biological activity of undenatured dietary whey proteins: role of glutathione. Clin Invest Med Volume 1991;14:296-309.
- Rothacker DQ, Watemberg S. Short-term hunger intensity changes following ingestion of a meal replacement bar for weight control. Int J Food Sci Nutr 2004;55:223-6.
- Luhovyy BL, Akhavan T, Anderson GH. Whey proteins in the regulation of food intake and satiety. J Am Coll Nutr. 2007;26:704S–12S.