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Are Protein Bars Good or Bad?

We lead busy lives today and protein bars are the perfect snack for the woman-on-the-go! For many protein bars have completely replaced a couple meals per day!

By Staness Jonekos: Founder/CEO/Author, Eat Like a Woman,  Inc.

owner & her book
  • U.S. women spend $62 BILLION a year on snacks.
  • One in four U.S. women snack 3 to 4 times per day.
  • S. women snack 85% more than men.
  • One in five U.S. women purchase protein bar snacks to improve mood or to boost energy.

We lead busy lives today and protein bars are the perfect snack for the woman-on-the-go!  For many protein bars have completely replaced a couple meals per day!

Are you getting the nutrition you need from these snacks? Many protein bars are loaded with added sugars making them candy bars disguised as a healthy protein bar and they usually cost more!  Other bars have partially hydrogenated oils (trans fat), high fructose corn syrup, artificial sugars and sugar alcohols and ingredients you can’t even pronounce. 

But, are protein bars packed with enough of the nutrition that women need daily? Many protein bars are disguised as healthy options all while being loaded with added sugars, making it more akin to a candy bar and, to make matters worse, at a higher cost. Other bars have partially hydrogenated oils (trans fat), high fructose corn syrup, artificial sugars and sugar alcohols and other unpronounceable ingredients.

Choosing a healthy protein bar is important if your goal is:

  • Weight loss
  • Muscle gain
  • Meal replacement
  • Extra energy
  • Mood booster
  • A meal replacement
  • To honor a specific diet that is fat free or low carb, or if you are counting sugar grams

Protein is essential for a healthy diet and can help keep you feeling full longer and, as an added benefit, may even lower blood pressure. Therefore, choosing the correct protein bar is important for good nutrition.

I founded Eat Like a Woman so healthy, nutritious, plant-based protein bars using whole foods to support a woman’s health are available in four delicious flavors:   Coconut AlmondChocolate BrownieCherry & Nut and Peanut Butter & Ancient Grains.

The word proteinis derived from a Greek root meaning “of first importance.” Muscles, organs, bones, cartilage, antibodies, skin, some hormones, and all enzymes are made of protein. 

Consuming the correct amount of protein has important benefits:

  1. Protein (chicken, turkey, beef, fish and beans) is digested more slowly from the stomach to the intestine, prolonging the feeling of being full. Protein does not stimulate the release of insulin, that can help stabilize blood sugar.   
  2. Consuming protein low in saturated fat can improve blood triglycerides and high-density lipoprotein, reducing risks of heart attacks or strokes.
  3. Protein is indispensable for the growth and maintenance of the cells in our bodies.
  4. Our body development, healing of wounds, replacement of dead cells, hair and nail growth and the replenishment of lost blood is dependent on protein.
  5. Proteins, in the form of enzymes, antibodies and hormones, can promote a strong, healthy metabolic process and boost nervous and immunity systems.

Not consuming enough protein can lead to weakening of the muscles, heart and respiratory system: impaired growth, decreased immunity, and even death.  

How much protein do you need per day?  

The recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is roughly your body weight multiplied by 0.36.  There are many factors to consider when you calculate your protein needs.

If you are active, bodybuilding, pregnant or breast feeding you will need more protein.  The Mayo Clinic says that eating too much protein can tax the kidneys.

The body can digest only between 20 and 40 grams of protein per meal. Eating in excess of that will not be a benefit, in fact, the unused calories can lead to weight gain.  Excessive protein intake is considered about 2.5 g per kg of body weight daily.

For a pre- or post-workout protein bar, select a product that has around 20 grams of protein.

Women who exercise daily need about 1.1 to 1.5 g of protein per kg of body weight while those who are lifting weights or are training for a sports event need 1.2 to 1.7 g per kg.

Protein needs increase for women over 40to about 1 to 1.2 g per kg of body weight. At midlife, women begin to lose muscle mass, called sarcopenia. Many experts believe added protein may help prevent this health condition.

Types of Protein

When dietary protein is broken down during digestion, compounds called amino acids are produced in the body, the building blocks of the protein the body uses to build and maintain muscles and organs.

Meats, poultry, fish, eggs, and milk/dairy products, and healthy protein bars are excellent sources of dietary protein. Plants are a wonderful source of protein, too. Nuts, seeds, whole grains, legumes and beans can bring balance to your daily protein requirements.  Soy is the only “complete” plant protein.

Protein bars usually get their protein from whey (animal product) or a plant-based protein like soy, brown rice, pea, hemp, milk and eggs. In fact, there are protein bars manufactured today from dried meats.  Do you want your snack tasting like a treat or a meal?  There are solutions for everyone.

Soy is a wonderful source of protein.  The Archives of Internal Medicinefound a link between soy consumption and strong bones.  Women who consumed 13 grams per day of soy had 35 to 37 percent lower risk of fractures compared to women in the lowest intake group.  Soy also contains other wonderful nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids, fiber and B vitamins.   

If you do not consume meats or other animal products, soy protein is a healthy alternative.  Both the American Dietetic Association and the Food and Drug Administration confirm that people who eat 25 to 50 grams of soy protein per day can help lower their levels of LDL cholesterol (“bad” cholesterol) that can clog blood vessels. 

Other delicious, non-meat sources of protein are beans and legumes, nuts, peanut butter, cheese, whole grain products and yogurt.  

Complete vs. Incomplete Proteins

Not all proteins are created equally.  Proteins consumed from animal sources (meat, fish, poultry, milk, cheese and eggs) are complete proteins, because they contain all essential nine amino acids for human use.  The only exception is soy (a plant source); it is also considered a complete protein.  Amino acids are the chemical building blocks from which new proteins are made.  Consuming complete proteins is important.Proteins obtained from plant-based foods (grains/cereals, legumes, seeds, nuts, lentils, peas and beans) are considered incomplete proteins, since they do not possess the necessary amounts of essential amino acids for human use. 

Why does this matter?  Fulfilling a protein serving by consuming only a nut bar, it is not a completeprotein.  You need to have a variety of incomplete proteins to make up a complete protein.   

You can combine plant and animal foods, or plant proteins from a variety of grains and cereals for one meal or eat them separately at another meal to honor a complete daily protein serving.

All humans need protein, carbohydrates fats, and water to survive.  

The benefits of protein are many:

  1. Protein is digested more slowly from the stomach to the intestine, making you feel full longer, stabilizing the effect of food on blood sugar. Unstable blood sugar levels can affect your mood and hormones.
  2. Consuming protein low in saturated fat can improve your blood triglycerides and high-density lipoprotein. Lower cholesterol and triglycerides can reduce your risk of heart attack or stroke.
  3. Protein is indispensable for the growth and maintenance of the cells in our bodies.
  4. Proteins in the form of enzymes, antibodies and hormones can promote a strong, healthy metabolic process, which could boost your nervous and immunity systems.
  5. Our body’s development, healing of wounds, replacement of dead cells, hair and nail growth, and the replenishment of lost blood is dependent on protein.

Consuming high-protein, high-fiber snack bars may reduce your overall food intake and improve your short-term glucose and insulin profile. Not consuming enough protein can lead to weakening of the muscles, heart and respiratory system, growth loss, decreased immunity, and even death.

Protein and the Thermic Effect

Protein has a wonderful hidden benefit called the thermic effect. The body uses 60 to 75 percent of its energy for basic functions (breathing, heartbeat). 
The thermic effect uses the energy derived from physical activities to metabolize food; some food can even speed up your metabolism.

Dietary fat is easy to process, so it has little thermic effect. Protein, on the other hand, is harder to process, therefore, it has a larger thermic effect.  It takes extra energy, up to 30% more, to break down protein into amino acids and glucose, and to synthesize new proteins in your body.

Although our bodies are designed to bear children, many women have decided to delay having children or not have them at all. Therefore, many pregnancies no longer occur during the prime reproductive years. Since the body is designed to grab every morsel of carbohydrates and fats, why not utilize protein to balance its new environment?

Increasing your protein intake can often kick-start weight-loss program, but it is not good for the long haul. Many believe in high-protein diets that restrict carb intake for life, but they may be at risk for nutritional deficiencies or insufficient fiber. In addition, eating too much red meat and/or full-fat dairy products may increase the risk of heart disease or worsen kidney function in people with kidney disease. As a result, the body may have trouble eliminating all the waste products of protein metabolism.

If you decide to jump-start weight loss by incorporating the thermic effect of protein, choose your protein wisely: fish, skinless chicken, lean beef, pork and low-fat dairy products are good choices.

Talk to your healthcare provider before starting a high-protein weight-loss strategy, especially if you have kidney or liver disease, diabetes or other chronic health conditions.

What to look for when purchasing a protein bar:

  • 200 or fewer calories for a snack protein bar
  • 300 calories for a meal replacement bar
  • At least 10 grams of protein
  • Carbs: less than 20 grams
  • Made with whole ingredients you can pronounce
  • Look for healthy plant-based proteins like pea, brown rice, or whey
  • Ratio of protein to carbs: at least 50% grams of protein compared to grams of carbohydrates. 20 grams of carbs, 10 grams of protein
  • Sugars below 8 grams. Avoid sugar alcohols, may cause bloating in some. Sugar alcohols can contribute calories and a spike in blood-sugar levels.
  • Fat content below 12 grams, no trans fats
  • Fiber at least 6 grams
  • If you are a serious athlete, look for bars with 20-30 grams of protein, otherwise, a good balance between carbs and protein is good. A bar containing 2 grams of protein and 28 grams of carbs – can spike the body’s blood sugar

Remember:  The body can digest only between 20 and 40 grams of protein in one sitting. If you routinely eat more than that, not only will you not benefit, the unused calories can lead to weight gain.

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