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7 Unhealthy Protein Bars to Avoid & What to Eat Instead

Different tasty protein bars on light blue wooden table, flat lay

7 Unhealthy Protein Bars to Avoid & What to Eat Instead

Protein bars come in all sizes and flavors. They are the easy go-to snack when you need a boost of energy. But don't be fooled by thinking all protein bars are healthy; some are high in sugar, sodium, and carbs and aren't much healthier than an actual candy bar. And, well, if the nutritional profile is similar to a candy bar, you might as well enjoy a candy bar. The American Heart Association recommends eating just 25 to 36 grams of sugar each day, and many protein bars will all but use up that sugar quota, trying to make a bland bar taste better.

Protein bars should obviously be high in protein to help keep hunger at bay and keep you going, whether after a workout or just trying to get through the dreaded afternoon slump. They shouldn’t give you a sugar high and later crash. But with so many different types of protein bars on the market, it is challenging to find one that has the nutritional profile you want and actually tastes good. The first step is to read labels carefully to know what you are actually putting in your body. The second step is to check out the list we put together of some of the most unhealthy protein bars so you can make good choices when it's time to fuel up. 

How to Judge a Protein Bar

When looking at protein bars and trying to read labels, there are a few things that you should look out for. Start by checking the ingredient list and making sure you know exactly what is in the bar. Then, you want to look at the calorie count. Protein bars range in calorie count, and each person has different needs. Think about the calorie count like this: is the protein bar a snack or a meal? If it's a meal substitute, then 400 calories is probably fine, but if it's just a snack for the drive home from the gym and then you plan on eating dinner, you will want to choose a bar with fewer calories.

Lastly, you want to look at the two important pieces of the protein bar puzzle: the actual protein and fiber. Both protein and fiber keep you full, but it depends on the individual needs to decide which is the right amount. In general, protein bars tend to have 5-10 grams of protein; any less than that turns your protein bar into just a granola bar or candy bar. 

1. SNICKERS Hi Protein Bar

It isn't surprising that the company known for making great candy bars would make a protein bar that is basically a candy bar. The Snickers Hi Protein Bar has 240 calories, 10 grams of fat, 19 grams of carbohydrates, and 150 grams of sodium. All of that in just a small 56-gram bar. The good news is it does have a lot of protein with 20 grams of protein, but with only 6 grams of fiber, this may satisfy your hunger for a short time, but it will leave you feeling less than full. To compare the protein bar to an actual Snickers candy bar with 245 calories, 26 grams of carbs, 13 grams of fat, and 4.7 grams of protein. So the Snickers Protein Bar does deliver on protein, but it's wrapped in a sugary carb-heavy package.

2. Think High Protein Bars

If you are gluten-free, then you may have already tried Think High Protein Bars. The bars are 60-gram bars with 230 calories, 8 grams of fat, 23 grams of carbs, and 20 grams of protein. Ok, so that’s a good start 20 grams of protein is pretty good. But they only have 1 gram of fiber, so they won't keep you from grabbing for another and maybe even another. While the bars are sugar-free, they do contain sugar alcohol, and quite a bit of it at 11 grams. On the plus side, they have a lot of flavors to choose from, and they have vegan bars, keto bars, protein and fiber-rich bars, and even bars specifically for children. Depending on the reason you are reaching for a protein bar, you might want to think again about whether the many flavors and styles are worth it with these bars.

3. ZonePerfect Protein Bars

Don't be fooled by the ZonePerfect Protein Bars. They probably won't get you in the zone for your workout, mainly because they are full of sugar. These bars have 50 grams, 220 calories, and 15 grams of sugar. They have more sugar than actual protein, which comes in at 14 grams. With 24 grams of carbs and 8 grams of fat, these bars will satisfy your sweet tooth but will not leave you feeling full. The mere 1 gram of fiber and all that sugar will send you on a sugar high, and the 270 milligrams of sodium will probably push you to drink more water. But there is a better way to drink more water than filling your body with sugar and sodium. 

4. MET-Rx Big 100 Colossal Bars 

This one seems like it would be a winner based on size alone; it is a 100-gram protein bar with 30 grams of protein. So why is it on the list of unhealthy protein bars because of the excess sugar, a whole 18 grams of it, and lack of fiber at only 1 gram of fiber.  The whole shebang has 410 calories, which is a lot for a protein bar. However, while this may not be a good choice for anyone watching their weight, it may be a decent choice for those trying to gain weight. Active people who weight train may not mind the extra sugar and focus on the calories and protein. So, this might not be ideal for the average gym goer, but it may work for some active athletes.

5. Luna Bars

Luna protein bars come in many flavors, from chocolatey to berry to mash-up flavors like Lemon Zest Raspberry and festive flavors like chocolate peppermint. But the fact of the matter is these protein bars don't have a lot of protein. The bars come in at under ten grams of protein, and some are even as low as seven grams of protein. The calorie count depends on the flavor, but they are between 190 and 210. Luna Bars win points for being gluten-free with lots of fun flavors, but they don't win points as an actual protein bar.

6. Clif Bars

The Clif bar has been a go-to protein bar for many gymgoers for some time. But you might want to rethink the Clif protein bars because they are high in carbohydrates with over 40 grams of carbs. This is a heavy bar, with most of its flavors having ten grams of protein. It isn't the right balance of carbs and protein for anyone trying to manage their weight. The carbs and sugar content will quickly negate any wins at the gym. Of course, if you are in the lucky club of people looking to gain weight, like bodybuilders or extreme athletes, then you might be able to manage the high carb count, but most of us need a protein bar with more protein and less carbs.

7.  Gatorade Whey Protein Recover Bars

Gatorade is a brand name that we all associate with athletes and an active lifestyle. It makes sense the company started making protein bars. But these protein bars are on the list of unhealthy protein bars because an 80-gram bar has 330 calories, 28 grams of sugar, 43 grams of carbs, and 190 milligrams of sodium. The bars promise protein, and with 20 grams of protein, you get the protein that's advertised, unfortunately, at the cost of sugar and carbs with zero fiber. 

Muscular athlete snacks on a protein bar while resting after a workout at the stadium. Man in a blue sports jersey rests in the stand for fans, eating a chocolate bar.
There are a lot of choices for protein bars.

©Aleksandr Finch/Shutterstock.com

When it comes to protein bars, you need to look at the overall package. And you need to be realistic about where you are on your health journey. If you are trying to lose weight, then a bar with lower sugar and calories is ideal. But if you are active daily and prioritize fitness, you may not need to be concerned about calories and sugar.

Another thing to consider is many protein bars are expensive, so eating them regularly may not be as cost-effective as finding another way to fuel up, like with bananas, Greek yogurt, nut butter, and other healthy staples. If you like to know everything that is in your protein bars, consider making your own at home. The internet is full of recipes for homemade protein and granola-style bars. You don’t need any special cooking tools or culinary experience, either; just some time to experiment with recipes and find one that is best for you on your fitness journey.

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