Protein Bars: Nutritious Treat or Unhealthy Snack?


Protein bars are potentially a student’s best choice for food during any time of the day, and in the final push of the spring semester of 2012, these bars may be the only thing a student will eat. Protein bars are small enough to fit nearly any pocket or purse, they are not inexpensive as their prices range from 99 cents to five dollars and they come in a host of different flavors, such as coconut chocolate, marshmallow crisp, and peanut butter cookie. With such appealing qualities, these bars can be hard to resist. However, what sounds so appealing must definitely have some drawbacks.

In order to discern the pros and cons of protein bars, The Observer spoke with nutritionist Andrea Chernus. Chernus is a registered dietitian, a certified diabetes educator and a Board certified specialist in sports nutrition. Her office is located on 133 W. 72nd St., suite 703 and she can be contacted via email at [email protected].

“I wouldn’t say protein bars are either beneficial or hazardous, but they are meant to be a supplement,” Chernus said. “One should not be living off of them. One should realize that they are a processed food, and the big push in nutrition these days is to work towards eating more whole foods in their original form. One can certainly get sufficient protein eating a varied diet.”

Protein bars are a supplement to one’s dietary needs, so having a bar as a snack is perfectly fine. It becomes problematic when protein bars replace one of the three daily meals. Breakfast, lunch and dinner should be from wholesome food, not a packaged rectangular bar.

There are many brands of protein bars out there, which makes it difficult to decide which would be best because their packaging emphasizes only their good points. “I don’t have specific brands that I recommend because I don’t think there is a difference for men or women. That’s more in the marketing of the brands!” Chernus said. “The body can’t use more than about thirty-five grams of protein per meal or snack, so it is wasteful to eat bars that contain more protein than that. Most ‘protein’ bars actually have more carbohydrates than protein, however.”

Although protein bars are meant to be a supplement, it seems that there are better options one could choose over a protein bar, such as Greek yogurt or mixed nuts. If the body can only use thirty-five grams of protein and most protein bars have more carbohydrates than protein, it may be a waste of money to buy protein bars.

“There is a limit to the amount of protein that is safe, and there is an amount the body can actually use,” Chernus said. “The safe range is 10-35 percent of one’s daily calories. Another way to look at this is by body weight. We need to consume about one half gram per pound of body weight as a minimum, but at the high end, the body can only effectively use about one gram per pound of body weight in protein – so that would be 100 grams for a 100-pound person. Consuming more than that will cause the body to either burn the protein for energy or store it as body fat. Additionally, high protein intakes dehydrate us because the body excretes water when metabolizing protein.”

Protein bars can have anywhere from ten to thirty grams of protein. Although the protein count does not exceed thirty-five grams, one should keep in mind that the protein count will add up at the end of the day. Since high-protein intakes cause dehydration, protein bars may not be for those with a low body weight.

Some protein bars contain soy-protein or soy-based ingredients. “Soy is a food that stirs much controversy,” Chernus said. “In reasonable amounts, one or two servings a day, there is no harm from soy.  It is always beneficial to obtain protein from a variety of sources. If one is a vegetarian or vegan, other plant sources of protein include legumes, nuts, seeds— even grains and vegetables have small amounts of protein. If one is an omnivore, consuming a variety of protein-containing foods such as meat, fish, poultry, eggs, milk and yogurt all provide excellent sources of protein. There is no limit  to soy-protein consumption. As I stated before, to supply our bodies with all the necessary nutrients for good health, it is wise to include a wide variety of food because there is no one food that provides all the nutrients that we need for good health.”

Multiple sources of protein are most beneficial for good health. One protein bar a day is a reasonable consumption, but it is important to eat wholesome foods.

Although protein bars are convenient, it is imperative to remember that they are a supplement to one’s dietary needs. Protein bars should not be the sole source for anyone’s nutrition. One should consider their body weight before eating a protein bar and think about how beneficial that bar really is.