Belly Up to the Bar: Best Nutrition Bars for Healthy Weight Loss
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Go to a health food store, grocery store or online retailer in search of a protein bar, and chances are you’ll be dazed and confused by the vast array of products and claims. All you want is to find the best nutrition bars, but where to begin?
Some are high in this. Others low in that. Organic. Gluten free. Non-GMO. Whey. Soy. Plant-based … Lucky for you we’ve done the homework, analyzing dozens of leading brands to find the best nutrition bars for weight loss to help you attain your personal health and fitness goals.
Origins of today’s protein bar
In ancient or even prehistoric times, it’s quite likely humans were eating dried, cured meat from game animals. In essence, that was a very simplistic protein bar.
Fast forward thousands of years to when man took to the seas, and history finds examples of Egyptian and Roman sailors eating small loaves of dried bread, prepared with grains such as millet, barley and rye. Later, England’s Royal Navy made famous their own long-lasting food ration dubbed “hardtack.”
In the early 1970’s Pillsbury Company developed a product they called Space Food Sticks. Touted as an “energy snack in rod form containing nutritionally balanced amounts of carbohydrate, fat and protein,” this forerunner of the protein or energy bar was first marketed to NASA as astronaut food, then to the American public as a healthy snack food.
By the 1980’s, Space Food Sticks had gone the way of the Ford Pinto. Onto the scene, however, emerged new snack foods that came as bars. This included granola bars targeted at school-age children, and a solid lump of calories called the Power Bar. Needless to say both found tremendous success, given that they continue to sell by the millions now deep into the 21st century.
Protein bar vs. energy bar: what’s the difference?
Of course, in today’s marketplace a lot of this has to do with, well, marketing. But on a fundamental level, it depends on what macronutrient the bar contains in highest (relative) amount — carbohydrate, fat or protein.
Carbohydrates are best known as forms of sugar, the preferred source of fuel for most cells of the human body. Thus, if a bar is mostly carbohydrate, it’s technically an energy bar. The same is true for fat — because at nine calories per gram (versus four each in carbs and protein), fat is the most energy-dense of the macronutrients. And finally, products with modest amounts of carbs and fat, with lots of protein, should be considered protein bars.
Where do granola bars fit in?
Granola bars, by and large, do not meet the standard of a true protein bar. Their main ingredients include oats and sugar (honey, corn syrup, etc.), and often raisins or chocolate chips — all of which are carbs.
They carry the benefit of “whole grains” (oats) and sometimes nuts or seeds, along with a smattering of vitamins and minerals, but are otherwise little different than your average candy bar. Yes, they’re good for an energy boost, but often at the expense of a spike in blood sugar as well.
If you struggle with pre-diabetes or diabetes especially, granola bars are not the best choice for balanced nutrition. And if you’re asking, what are the best granola bars for weight loss? The answer is, ones that are really protein bars — and just happen to have some granola in them.
Carbs, fat and protein: striking the right balance
So what about this power struggle between carbohydrates, fat and protein? How much of each is too little or too much? As you might guess, there’s no one right answer to this question — just uneducated guesses and expert opinions. Rest assured what we’re presenting here is the latter for sure! By our standards, the best protein bars or the best granola bars for weight loss will meet the following criteria:
Calories: < 250g
Protein: > 10g
Carbs: < 25g
Fiber: > 5g
These are the four items on the product label you should be focusing on. And if you’re screening for the best nutrition bar for weight loss, ignore the carbs — and especially added sugars — at your own peril! Keep in mind that while carbs are the body’s preferred fuel source, any of this fuel your body doesn’t actually need will be stored away — as fat. Depressing, right?
Unfortunately, you can’t change your physiology, but you can do a better job of estimating your true energy needs. Sitting at a desk, in a driver’s seat or on the couch at home doesn’t require a lot of rapidly available energy. So dial down the calories and the carbs in your nutrition bar of choice.
On the other hand, if you have a job requiring hard physical labor, are a serious weightlifter or athlete who works out more than a few hours per day, you could definitely make the case for more calories, carbs and protein in a bar — or simply eat two at a time!
The ingredient list: less is more
After scanning the nutrition facts label, next glance over the ingredients list. This can be intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, if the list is too long and full of words you don’t understand, give that bar the axe and move on. Ideally the list will be quite short, with items that sound like actual foods, not chemical compounds. Bonus points if it’s totally free of artificial sweeteners like sucralose, which has shown to negatively affect gut bacteria and even promote insulin resistance, a precursor to diabetes. Perhaps not the ideal choice for those trying to lose weight! (1)
Also, in a perfect world anyway, the best nutrition bars will be socially and environmentally responsible products. In our opinion, that means looking out for palm oil. According to the World Wildlife Fund, palm oil production in Indonesia and Malaysia is responsible for excessive deforestation — also meaning destroyed habitat for orangutans, rhinos, elephants and other endangered species.(2)
The main protein source: a key ingredient
Last but not least, take a look at the main protein source, which should be one of the first two or three ingredients listed. Common proteins used in the supplement industry include whey, soy and other plant-based derivatives such as pea protein. While there’s not a vast difference in terms of your body’s ability to utilize the protein — whether for tissue repair, energy or otherwise — there are some subtle differences. And, as you might expect, we have a favorite.
Whey protein has been shown to have a positive effect on insulin
and blood glucose regulation. It also tends to suppress appetite.(3)
But that’s not all! Whey protein has shown many other promising health benefits. These include lowering blood clot formation, blood pressure and cholesterol, as well as helping the body combat both viruses and bacteria.(4)
Whey protein isolate is superior to the concentrate form, as it contains a much higher percentage of pure protein. Whey hydrolysate is further purified and the proteins partially broken down making them easier to absorb. Whey also contains high amounts of the amino acid leucine, which stimulates muscle repair.(5) And as compared to plant based protein (soy, pea, wheat, etc.), whey has has greater anabolic (body building) potential overall.(6)
Top 5 best nutrition bars for weight loss
In terms of the low carb / high protein diet, arguably no one has been doing it longer and with more brand recognition than Atkins. For well over a decade the company has been focused on low carb snacks, and this is their latest attempt at providing one of the best nutrition bars for weight loss and glycemic control. Reviews are mixed however. Some tout the bars as great tasting while others complain about freshness. At least one thing is for sure though — at only 4g net carbs each, you’ll have to search far and wide to find a bar that has less impact on your blood sugar.
- Calories: 220
- Protein: 16g
- Protein: 29%
- Total carbs: 18g
- Fiber: 6g
- Bar size: 48g
Pros: Extremely low carbs. Inexpensive.
Cons: Contains artificial sweeteners (sucralose). Contains palm oil and GMO soy protein.
Best suited for: People with diabetes or who are following a ketogenic diet.
The folks at Atlas are confident they’ve created “a bar that’s high in protein, low in sugar, minimally processed, and unquestionably delicious.” So confident in fact that they offer a 100% money-back guarantee if you’re disappointed. Customers like the smooth chewy texture — not grainy like some other protein bars — and definitely seem to appreciate its wholesome ingredients.
- Calories: 230
- Protein: 16g
- Protein: 28%
- Total carbs: 22g
- Fiber: 11g
- Bar size: 57g
Pros: Several whole food and organic ingredients including almond butter and pumpkin seeds. Majority of protein from one high quality source, grass fed whey protein.
Cons: Expensive. Higher in calories and fat (12g) versus some competitors. Large bar size, may be difficult for some to finish.
Best suited for: Athletes needing a high energy snack to refuel after sports or cardio workouts. Those who like to buy organic.
As the brand name implies, Fitjoy’s target demographic seems to be fitness enthusiasts and serious athletes — to whom they deliver an impressive 20g protein per bar. Many customers enjoy the taste and consistency of the bars, “chewy” and also somewhat “crumbly,” while others appreciate the omission of artificial sweeteners.
- Calories: 220
- Protein: 20g
- Protein: 36%
- Total carbs: 24g
- Fiber: 12g
- Bar size: 60g
Pros: Nice balance of protein, carbs, fat and fiber. Sweetened naturally with sugar, cocoa and stevia.
Cons: Large bar size, may be difficult for some to finish. Contains palm kernel oil.
Best suited for: Those with a big appetite who need lots of extra protein such as weight/resistance trainers, cross-fitters or even someone recovering from major surgery.
Looking for an indulgent treat without the guilt? This may be the bar for you. It’s basically a Rice Krispy treat loaded with protein, and a whopping 10g fiber to boot. Most customers seem to love the taste and texture of the bar, and others say it fits well into their “keto” (low carb) diet plan.
- Calories: 160
- Protein: 15g
- Protein: 38%
- Total carbs: 18g
- Fiber: 10g
- Bar size: 44g
Pros: Large percentage of calories as protein. High fiber. Manageable bar size.
Cons: Lower quality ingredients versus some rivals. Contains artificial sweeteners (sucralose).
Best suited for: Those who either want or need a very low calorie protein bar.
At Pottentia their motto is: “ingredients, ingredients, ingredients.” And while it’s hard to judge the quality, we can say their ingredient list is among the shortest and least-processed in the industry. Customers value this “clean” and “honest” approach, and regarding taste generally praise Pottentia bars for getting the job done with less sweetness than its rivals.
- Calories: 180
- Protein: 11g
- Protein: 24%
- Total carbs: 18g
- Fiber: 9g
- Bar size: 43g
Pros: Very few ingredients, minimally processed. Whole foods including dates, almonds and coconut. Modesty sized and priced.
Cons: Low protein.
Best suited for: Those who don’t need a ton of protein and who try to avoid highly processed foods.
In the final analysis, Pottentia’s streamlined approach to delivering well-balanced nutrition bars prevailed. Yes, they have less protein to offer than the competition, but also fewer calories. And when shopping for the best nutrition bars for weight loss, too many people make the mistake of overdoing it on both protein and calories. True strength and fitness fanatics may find these bars lacking, but for the rest of us they check all the right boxes. Plus, they leave more room in your diet for what matters most — real food.
After all, replacing a meal with a quality nutrition bar once in a while is fine — and certainly much better than succumbing to fast food. But you should resist the temptation to make your life too convenient, at the expense of losing touch — and taste — with delicious cuisine. Fruits and vegetables. Whole grains. Seafood. Lean meat. Dairy. Herbs and spices. These things have nourished our evolution for thousands of years, and if all goes well, they’ll take us into a bright and sustainable future of healthy eating.