You don't want your protein bar to be glorified candy any more than you want to be eating a chalky equivalent of a dog treat. Unfortunately, that's what you get more often than not.
Taste preferences aside, you generally want to "avoid all bars with artificial colors, flavors, or sweeteners that are higher in sugar (listed in many ways, such as brown rice syrup, agave nectar, coconut nectar, high fructose corn syrup, etc.)," says Julie Burns, M.S., R.D., founder of SportFuel Inc.®, a Chicago consulting firm, which offers personalized nutrition counseling to athletes including the Chicago Blackhawks, White Sox, Bears, and Bulls. She adds: The ideal range of macros, however, all depends on your goals. But here are some guidelines all men should follow:
- Before a workout, the type of carbs matter most. "You want slow-releasing carbs, which you can use before any type of workout," Burns says. For weightlifting, powerlifting, and endurance workouts, slow-release complex carbs, like modified starch and fiber, give you sustained energy; you won't need as much if you're doing HIIT or circuit training.
- Split any of the more calorie-dense bars in half for a snack. Just be careful; you don't want to down bars in place of food or you could gain unwanted weight.
- If you want a bar to serve as a meal replacement, you want at least 10-15g of fat—too little will prevent you from staying full. "We fully support a higher-fat diet as long as the quality and type are top-notch and it matches demands and goals," Burns adds. (The one time you don't want fat is immediately before or immediately after a typical hour-long gym session; research published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism shows a high-fat meal can blunt the production of growth hormone. It can also disrupt digestion prior to workouts and slow down digestion after.)
- You can subtract the fiber grams from the total amount of carbs to get net carbs—that's the total amount of carbs minus the fiber content and sugar alcohols, which your body can't digest. It'll give you a better idea of what you're eating.
Check out how Burns and SportFuel Inc.® sports nutritionist Alexandria Cotie ranked 13 protein bars on the market right now. Their criteria: Bars closest to real food that have quality protein sources and the most natural ingredients. That's why some bars, higher in natural sources of sugar, like dates, are higher on the list compared to ones with artificial sweeteners.