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Protein shakes and bars are growing in popularity as Americans try to squeeze healthy eating into their busy lives.
All dietitians would agree that whole, real foods are always the best choice. But on occasion, protein bars and shakes can be a decent option when pressed for time. Sticking a protein shake or bar in your purse, car or gym bag provides something convenient but healthier to eat rather than skipping a meal or resorting to fast food.
Shopping for the best options in the protein bar aisle can be overwhelming with the multitude of choices in tempting flavors, such as cookies and cream or birthday cake. Here’s how to sort through the marketing and hype to make good choices:
First: what type of protein is it?
The type of protein used to make the bar or shake is an important factor in deciding which product to select. Protein helps promote satiety, build muscle mass, improve blood sugar control, and reduce blood pressure.
The ability to keep us full and build muscle while we lose fat makes high-protein foods a great choice when we’re trying to lose weight. Protein bars and shakes typically contain whey, soy, pea protein, nuts, seeds, brown rice protein or a combination of these.
Second: watch the sweeteners
The ingredients used to sweeten bars and shakes are also a criteria for choosing which to buy. There are a variety of sweeteners used in bars and shakes. Sugars are often added in the form of fruits, cane sugar, honey, and rice syrup.
Bars that are very low in carbohydrates (under 10 grams of carbohydrate per bar or shake) use sugar alcohols, stevia, monk fruit, or artificial sweeteners to provide the sweet taste of that dessert-like bar or shake without the carbohydrates.
How much carbohydrate is OK? Don’t be concerned about a protein bar or shake containing some carbohydrates. Having carbohydrates with protein actually helps the protein get used for muscle growth and repair.
Keeping the net carbohydrates (total carbohydrates minus dietary fiber) below 20 grams per serving is recommended.
Third: watch the fat
Another ingredient to consider is the type of fats used in making the bar. Those candy-coated chocolate or lemon bars come with a price tag. The coating is typically made with saturated fat such as palm oil. Shakes may also have saturated fat added to act as a thickener or preservative. Excess saturated fat has been linked to heart disease. Avoiding bars and shakes with over 3 grams saturated fat is recommended.
Now you know why we’re spending 30 minutes staring at the protein shake and bar choices at the grocery store! Below are some recommended shakes and bars that are decent options. All of these are available in stores and online with the exception of Rise Bars, which are only available on their website and, of course, Amazon.
Toni Havala MS, RD is a registered dietitian at Endeavor Health® Weight Management in Naperville.
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