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Protein Bars: What’s the hype?

Nutritionists weigh in on what you should and shouldn’t eat


It truly seems like everyone is on the protein bar kick. Everywhere you look you see different varieties of protein bars, but which are the right ones to eat? Grocery stores carry them, convenience stores carry them and of course, the health food stores all have them. I am not much of a protein bar fan myself so when I wanted to learn more about them, I figured it was time to finally try one but which would I try?

I ventured into a convenience store on a street corner in Philadelphia while on a weekend trip for a mid-afternoon snack boost. The first rack of snack foods I encountered were protein bars and they had an unbelievable amount of options. I am partial to sweets and candies so when I saw the chocolate chip cookie dough protein bar, I grabbed it. Don’t get me wrong, I like nuts and dried fruits but the one that contained the word chocolate in the title was what did me in. How could I resist?

I won’t delve into too much detail of my first bite but let’s just say my fear of trying new foods was not left far behind after that protein bar. I will try one again but maybe next time I will listen more to what the nutritionists have to say in regards to taste and what to look for in a protein bar rather than the word chocolate in the title.

In order to know my choices better for next time, I chatted with some area nutritionists to get the low-down on just what is so great about these protein bars. Just like most health food kicks, protein bars come with the good, the bad and the ugly.

What to look for:

With so many to choose from as with most things in our world today, it can be overwhelming to make a decision. Nutritionists Linda Arpino, Francine Blinten, Alison Held and Nancy Murphy gave us some tips on what people should look for when making a decision. Some of the brands suggested can make it easier to choose but also looking at ingredient lists can additionally help narrow it down.

Look at saturated fats and sugar content. Arpino said that four grams of sugar is equivalent to one teaspoon of the sweet stuff so be weary. With some bars containing as much as 16 grams of sugar per bar, you need to watch out!

“If you have one for breakfast, you can have four teaspoons of sugar before you have even left the house,” Blinten said.

Held made some suggestions on brands she recommends that people can get off store shelves. She prefers Larabar, thinkThin Bar, Organic Food Bar as well as NuGo for those who want something gluten free. Larabars are a good whole food product, thinkThin Bar is low in sugar, Organic Food Bar is packed with anti-oxidants and NuGo is good for those who want less or no gluten. Murphy is partial to Kashi Bar given the variety they offer.

Why they are good:

Mom’s on the go or anyone who has a busy schedule tend to gravitate towards protein bars since they are quick and easy. Both Blinten and Held said that when in a pinch, protein bars can come in handy. They are non-perishable and convenient. What they want people to remember though is to look at the ingredient list and make sure they have fiber as well as enough protein. “I am a fan of them, I just warn people to be careful of over consuming,” Held said.

What to avoid:

All of the nutritionists agreed that people should not use these bars as a crutch and form habits of grabbing them as meal replacements. Blinten said that people should prepare for their busy and rushed schedules. She suggests cutting up vegetables and fruits and having them on hand in Tupperware containers or baggies to grab on your way out the door. Focusing on whole grain, fruits and vegetables is still important.

Keeping them away from children as much as possible is good as well. Bring fruit to a sports game so children can receive plenty of nutrients they need to recover. “Some protein bars are less than 100 calories, others are over 350,” Arpino said. “For a child, a 350 calorie protein bar is not going to do it; it is a third of their calorie intake for the day.”

In regards to ingredient lists, they recommended avoiding those that taste the best since they probably are the worst. “People think they are eating a health food when they might be eating a chocolate bar,” Blinten said. Be wary of those that say “all-natural ingredients” and check the back. If there is a long list of ingredients, find one with less and more understandable contents. Lastly, those that are loaded with protein may not even be worth it. “Ones you find at GNC or vitamin shops have massive amounts of protein in them and your body can only take so much at a time,” Held said.

What to try:

If you want to find what is best or if you want a protein bar for a specific purpose, talk to a practitioner. They can find you protein bars you cannot get on the market and ones that are truly good for you. Take a chance and try a bar without the word chocolate in the title…it might just be that much better for you and you will get what you should from a protein bar!

Linda Arpino, MA, RD, CDN works as a nutritionist at Life Focus Nutrition Centers in Stamford and in Rye Brook. For more information, visit http://www.lifefocusnutrition.com/index.html or call (914) 935-0123.

Francine G. Blinten is a clinical nutritionist at Francine Blinten Nutrition based in Old Greenwich. For more information, call (203) 403-2900.

Alison Held works in Westport as a clinical nutritionist at Healthful Direction. For more information, visit http://healthfuldirection.com/ or call (203) 557-4192.

Nancy Murphy works in Fairfield as a registered dietician at Fairfield County Lifestyle Consultants. For more information, call (203) 403-2866.

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