Protein bars are a secret weapon for many runners. Proteins are critical to muscular recovery, something important to any athlete who is trying to improve their performance over time. They can also be a great pinch-hitting food for times in-between meals, while traveling, or pre-workout when you don’t have access to other natural food. Triathletes love them just before a race or even in transition areas, because they digest quickly. Protein bars are an excellent source of protein and quick-hit calories for your workout.
In fact, when it comes to workout nutrition, there are really four simple factors to think about. Make sure you have your electrolytes for muscle balance, your hydration for obvious reasons (see our piece comparing Yetis vs. Camelbaks), a lite, balanced dose of carbs and sugars, and your protein for sustained energy. That is where the protein bars come in.
When we say the word “protein”, we are often overgeneralizing. The fact is that there are many proteins in the world of nutrition, and your body needs all of them in order to be balanced. Protein bars include protein from more than one source, and these sources can be anything from milk to soy and eggs, etc. This type of protein is isolated from these sources. Most protein bars also include fats, vitamins, carbohydrates, and minerals, etc. to make the food bar an excellent source of nutrition as a dietary supplement.
Are Protein Bars Good for Runners and Athletes?
As with most matters of nutrition, there is nothing intrinsically good or bad about protein bars. It is the bar you choose, the method in which they are used, the frequency with which they are consumed, and the type of ingredients in them can determine whether they are beneficial or not. Choose your bars poorly, and you actually might be filling yourself up with as many empty calories and sugar as you are protein.
Used wisely, and in conjunction with other balanced dietary steps, protein bars can be very effective. They can augment a demanding diet, and help fill important protein gaps. They can also be quite effective at providing a healthy meal replacement in times when another good option is not available. Protein also helps you feel full, something that enables you to prevent urges to eat poor food choices.
This point is an important point to keep in mind – some protein bars are meant to be snacks or pick-me-ups, and others are actually intended to be meal replacements. Know which one you are buying, and use it tactically at the right times for you. What we know is that the makers of all snack bars are very good at marketing, meaning that you need to be a smarter consumer if you are going to consume these regularly.
Protein bars are especially beneficial for people who actively work out, are training for a race or triathlon, or are into body building etc. because an added source of protein is welcome in their fitness regime.
What to Look for in a Protein Bar
- Calorie count. Calories are important! Know the caloric count of your bar. Anything above 400 calories is likely meant to be a meal replacement, and provides way too much for a snack. 150-300 calories is nice range for the snack-type bars.
- Sugars. Sugar is complicated — your body needs some, and it is important in making the bar taste right. Too much sugar, though, and you have defeated the purpose of a high-protein
nutrition source. Some protein bars are full of sugar, and none of those bars made our list. Watch the sugar levels, and if they are high, stay away. The best ones out there like Think Thin and Quest have no sugar at all.
- Carbs. Carb content is another thing to look out for. Someone on a diet wanting to lose weight would not tend to go over 30 grams of carbs per bar. However, if someone who has just had an intense workout wishes to have a protein bar, exceeding the 30 grams of carbs per bar limit is fine, if not necessary. As the TB12 Diet notes, keeping carbs down is only part of the equation — it also matters when you eat them and what else you eat them with.
- Sugar alcohols. Though these might not bother most people, for some it can result in bad gas, bloating, cramps and diarrhea, etc. It is best to try it out to see if it affects you adversely and then being on the lookout in other protein bars in the future. Sometimes you will find that there is a cumulative effect – one bar, and you feel fine. Two in one day, and the side effects begin.
- Dietary fat content. This is another important factor to keep an eye out for. For those who eat protein bars after workouts, it is best to eat ones with fat in them because it slows the release of carbs in the bloodstream and makes it more balanced.
- Carb to Protein Ratio. Unless you are looking for more of an “energy bar”, which is a different category altogether, it is best to buy protein bars with more protein as compared to carbohydrates. Bars with more carbohydrates than proteins simply defeat the purpose of having protein bars in the first place.
- Ease of Digestion. Some protein bars go down real easy, and are excellent in a pinch. Others require a little more chewing. Know which you prefer, and if you are someone who doesn’t like taffy being stuck in your teeth, you need to shy away from that type of bar, for example.
- Taste. Yes, we know this isn’t your primary concern when you’re dying of hunger 10 miles into a marathon. However, the more you eat while working your body, the more energy you will have to keep going. We all remember the protein bars that we were limited to not so many years ago. The dry chalkiness was always difficult to get down and often led to ending our training days early. Those days are long gone, as is obvious by the countless choices now available. You can get any flavor you can imagine, and we can imagine some pretty good ones. Do yourself a favor, pick an option that you enjoy so you will be able to keep going longer.
Ideally, a snack protein bar should have 150-300 calories, whole food ingredients, more than 7 grams of protein, more than 3 grams of fiber, and less than 13 grams of sugar. Meal replacement bars start at 300 calories and are often in the 400+ range.
Most Popular Protein Bars for Runners
Though many different companies across the globe manufacture protein bars, very few of them are good enough. Here are some of the most famous and beneficial protein bars:
Quest Bar (here) is a US No.1 bestselling protein bar. It comes in a wide range of flavors, and can also vary in nutritional value. Quest Bars can be found in flavors ranging from the conventional chocolate and blueberry etc. to the far more innovative peanut butter and jelly and s’mores, etc.
With the runners we interact with, the most popular flavors tend to be Chocolate Brownie, Cookie Dough, and Cookies and Cream. Quest also makes a Mint Chocolate (green wrapper) that seems to have a love-or-hate following. We think it is excellent, but we know others who avoid it.
With each bar coming in at about $2-3, it is not the most expensive protein bar in the market and is extremely beneficial regarding its nutrients. Each flavor tends to have different nutritional content, but what is common amongst all of them is that they are all rich in fibers, healthy carbohydrates, and of course proteins.
The protein to carb ration is excellent, making then a favorite snack for folks who are in training mode. They also have very low sugar content given the protein you get from there. Found here.
Think Thin makes High Protein Bars, Protein Nut Bars, and Protein and Fiber bars. Each has its nutritional content with varying degrees of protein, carbohydrates, and fiber contents.
The High Protein Bar, for example, has 20 grams of protein and is also gluten and sugar-free. The Protein Nut Bar has 9 grams of protein, 3 grams of fiber and 120 calories. The Protein and Fiber Bar has 10 grams of protein, 5 grams of fiber, 5 grams of sugar, 150 calories, and is gluten free as well.
Each type of protein bar comes in a wide range of delicious flavors as well, and we particularly like the variations on peanut and peanut butter. Overall, though, the protein-to-carb ratio is not quite as pure as the Quest Bar, above. Found here.
Health Warrior is plant-powered, and all of its bars contain protein rich chia seeds, quinoa, peas and oats to give it its high protein count. They also contain highly beneficial ingredients that are anti-inflammatory in nature and give you energy throughout the day as well. A high calcium content also allows for better defense against bone related issues. These bars are popular with the running set as snack bars, given the relatively low calorie count. The protein level is not as high as Quest, so factor than in if you are looking for pure protein.
Health Warrior has multiple different types of food bars, but one that stands out is its Lemon GoldenBerry Protein Bar. This particular bar has 190 calories, 10 grams of protein, 6 grams of fiber and only 10 grams of sugar. Found here.
RXBar makes multiple different types of protein bars, all of which have a immaculate ingredient list. If you are looking for something that is made from real food, this is a great choice…. And you will get a respectable level of protein, too. We have become huge fans.
Their Chocolate Sea Salt bar has six real food ingredients, namely dates, almonds, egg whites, sea salt, cacao, and cashews. There is no added sugar which makes it healthier than most other protein bars out in the market. Other flavors have similar simplicity in the ingredient list. If you want our opinion, the blueberry-flavored bar (in the blue wrapper) is tops in terms of both taste and texture.
Considering it also has a good amount of magnesium and potassium in it, it is also rich regarding minerals. Overall, this is probably the most “natural” of the bunch. The only downer is that some of the flavors can be a bit taffy-like in consistency, but many overlook that because the flavor is generally excellent. One that we find is easy to chew without leave much sticky stuff in your mouth is the peanut butter version. Found here.
NuGo Protein Bar
The NuGo brand is focused on using wholesome, non-GMO, and non high-fructose corn syrup in their recipes. They have carved out a niche of having bars that taste good, don’t just turn to mush in your mouth, and provide a good balance of nutrition.
The typical NuGo bar has anywhere from 16 to grams of protein, enough to qualify it in our “protein bar” category no doubt. We are especially impressed that they keep the sugar content extremely low — low enough to be good for diabetics, much less the typical runner who is watching their sugar intake. Many of their bars have as low as 3 grams of sugars — impressively low consider you are also getting close to 20 grams or more of protein.
If you want to crank up the protein, go with the “Stronger” line of bars or at least the “Slim” lineup. As far as the 25g Stronger line goes, we are fans of the Crunchy Peanut Butter flavor. As for the Slim lineup, the Brownie Crunch is outstanding.
How Much Protein is Too Much?
Generally speaking, most people need more protein. Getting too much is a pretty rare problem.
Many scientific studies suggest that anything more than about 25 grams of protein at one time is wasted, because your body can’t use it all at one time. Others suggest that figure is higher, that protein absorption should not be a limiting factor on how much protein you have.
For most adults, having a daily gram intake of protein that is 1/2 your bodyweight in pounds. So, if you weight 200 pounds, target 100 grams of protein per day.
Protein bars are excellent sources of proteins, fats, carbohydrates and fiber, which makes them staples for many runners and triathletes. We have listed our favorites above, and once you find one that works for you, we suggest buying in bulk in order to save money.
The main thing is to know what you are buying, and then use it in the intended way. And don’t confuse protein bars with energy bars, and they really are two very different products.