How Energy Bars Can Wreck Your Diet

Protein bars can contain as much sugar and fat as a candy bar – it’s a flavorful fact that can derail a diet.

If you’re eating a whole meal’s worth of calories in a single protein bar, then they’re surely harmful. But when chosen wisely – and used judiciously – these bars can help busy people stay fueled and combat cravings for a sweet treat.

It’s all about choosing the right bars. Not the bars that are calorie- and sugar-packed.

According to an insightful piece on, “It turns out that more than a third of the products contain more saturated fat than a glazed donut from Krispy Kreme.”

If not sweetened with regular old sugar or another calorie-containing sweetener like high fructose corn syrup, honey or molasses, they are sweetened with artificial sweeteners and most have a laundry list of artificial colors and preservatives.

The protein source for most bars comes from whey, a substance produced from the milk used to make cheese, or soy, which is processed from concentrate and other soybean derivatives. The added sugars are needed because, in processed form, both whey and soy protein powder tastes totally awful.

Protein is necessary for building and maintaining muscles – and it helps you feel full longer. However, consuming more protein than you need isn’t a good diet strategy. In fact, excessive calories from any nutrient make for a one-sided diet.


Health experts advise that you get anywhere from 15-30 percent of your calories from protein, which by the way, is found in generous amounts in all animal products ranging from fish and meat to eggs, and in dairy, nuts and seeds, and in legumes and grains. There’s even a small amount in vegetables, too.

More protein isn’t necessarily better. When a single bar may have a third or more of the protein necessary for the average diet, you could be overdoing it – unless you’re cutting back on protein for your other meals.

The bottom line: Read the label before you buy.


I typed “protein bars for weight loss” into my Google search and got almost 9 million hits. You can buy protein bars just about everywhere – in health food stores, in drug stores, in convenience marts, and at the grocery store.

Before you choose to indulge, look for these numbers:

Serving size: All the numbers listed for calories, protein, etc. pertain to the serving size listed. If the serving size is a half-bar, then you need to double all of the numbers.

Calories per serving: Depending on your needs, this number is variable. If you’re on a 1,200-calorie diet, estimate about 10 percent of your day’s calories for one snack (about 120 calories). Or, if you prefer a larger snack, make it 20 percent or 240 calories, and “borrow” the balance from your lunch and dinner meals.

Grams of fat: Total fat is not as important as grams of saturated fat – aim for less than 5 percent of the daily intake.

Trans fat: This number should always be zero; read the ingredient label to avoid all partially hydrogenated fat.

Protein: Aim for about 8-11 grams per serving.

Fiber: At least 4 grams per serving.

Sugar: No more than 10 grams per serving – less is best.

Read the ingredient label. The best bars contain whole grains, real dried fruit and nuts – which, by the way, are fantastic, portable and nutritious snacks.

A second helping

And what about the so-called energy bars? listed reasons you may want to steer clear of these, too.

Excessive nutrients: Energy bars can contribute to an excessive intake of nutrients, especially if you are eating more than one bar daily, take a multivitamin supplement, and eat other fortified (enriched) foods and beverages. The dangers of over-supplementation vary from minor intestinal discomforts (diarrhea and constipation) to liver disease, nerve damage or even death.

Excessive calories: Energy bars may contribute to a high caloric intake, which can lead to weight gain.

Cost: At $1 to $2 a bar, this convenience food can quickly become a major expense on your grocery bill.

Abdominal discomforts: Some energy bars (especially low-sugar or low-carb varieties) contain sugar alcohols, which can cause bloating, gas and diarrhea in some individuals.

Lack of data: There is very little research to support the actual need for energy bars. They are not a magical food and should not be used as a constant replacement for whole foods in your diet.

Processing: Energy bars are a highly processed food, whereas whole, unprocessed foods should be the staples of a healthy diet.

Additives: Some energy bars contain additional herbal ingredients. There is no data to show that any of these herbs are effective. Herbs have no standards regarding potency or safety, and many result dangerous allergic and drug interactions.


Susan Burke March, MEd, RDN, CDE – Food, Nutrition, and Your Health columnist for


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