Reaching for the Bar: Which One Is Right for You?

It’s a little ironic that one of the most confusing aisles in the grocery store is the one filled with products claiming to be easy, healthy alternatives when you’re short on time: bars. Energy bars, protein bars and meal replacement bars seem like an easy solution for the rushed and overworked, but which one do you choose?

Is an energy bar your best bet for staving off the midafternoon slump? Do you need a meal replacement bar if you’re planning on having it for lunch?

These products can help fuel you in a pinch but knowing what to look for and the differences among different types of bars are important in helping you make good choices and feel your best. Let’s take a closer look!


Energy bars are typically high-calorie, high-carb bars and are usually recommended only for athletes training in endurance sports. They are meant to give you a quick burst of energy, but if you’re sitting in an office chair instead of running a marathon, they can spike your blood sugar and lead to a crash a little while later.

Instead, look for bars with protein, which will help stabilize your blood sugar and keep you full until your next meal. Bars with nuts, dried fruit or whole grains like oatmeal can be good snack options. If your bar is replacing a meal, make sure it has at least 10-20 grams of protein and simple ingredients for maximum nutrition. The best time to eat energy bars is when you’re running low on energy during a workout or right before a workout.


Protein bars are more like energy bars’ awesome older siblings, in the sense that they provide more versatility and nutrition. These multifaceted snacks will stop your stomach from rumbling and can be used as a meal on the go as well as a nutritional supplement for weight loss or weight gain. However, these bars should not be used to replace meals often (no more than once a week). Shop for protein bars with 200-300 calories, at least 10 grams of protein and some fiber. A lot also come with additional nutrients needed for a well-balanced diet, so check those nutrition facts. Watch out for ingredients like high fructose corn syrup, other added sugars and high amounts of sodium, or else your protein kicks will be more like sugar rushes from a sweet dessert. Munch on healthy protein bars when you’re hungry or preceding a workout to reap their benefits, but it’s probably best to eat them sparingly, unless you’re trying to gain weight.

“Nutrition bars with protein can be a great snack or meal replacement when you’re too busy for a regular meal. Just make sure to choose bars with at least 10-20 grams of protein and the fewest, most recognizable ingredients you can find.”

Carolyn Schut, MS, RD, LD, CLC Registered Dietitian, Health Plan of Nevada


Meal replacement bars are made up of a purposeful combination of macro- and micronutrients in order to promote weight loss or muscle mass gains. They’re normally a combination of carbohydrates, protein and fat, as well as vitamins and minerals. Choose meal replacement bars with whole foods—such as seeds, dried fruits and whole grains—for the best overall results. Combine a meal replacement bar with other healthy foods—such as Greek yogurt, fruit and nuts—for a complete meal that will feed your body what it needs. These types of bars are ideal for people who need a portable meal or a snack between meals or for those who are trying to lose weight.


Not all bars or brands that create them are the same. Be wary of marketing tactics and ingredient lists. The more whole foods and familiar ingredients found in a bar, the healthier it is likely to be. Eat energy bars if you need more fuel for an intense workout, protein bars before a workout or for weight gain, and meal replacement bars if you’re trying to lose weight or need a meal on the go. Doctors and nutritionists warn not to use bars to replace whole foods—such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains—that your body needs to properly function. But if you need more energy or a compact snack in a crunch, these packaged goodies may pack the punch you’re looking for. Just be sure to check that ingredient list before you buy!


If you’re still unsure about how to select the right bar, or just want to take complete control of the ingredients, try our recipe for no-bake oatmeal energy bites.

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