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My Authoritative Guide to Protein Products

Updated: Jan 10

I get asked a lot of questions as a nutritionist - are carbs bad for me? How do I make healthy meals for my family? What's the deal with the Paleo diet? And so forth.

But by far, the most common question I get from nearly every client is: what are the best brands of protein bars (and, for the sake of this post, protein powders/products in general)?

Of course, brands and availability vary by country, and I have clients around the world so it's hard to speak to y'all at once - but I'll start with some general guidelines:

  • If you're looking to lose weight, make sure your bar has fewer than 250 calories (otherwise it would be considered a "meal replacement" bar).

  • If you're consistently low on protein intake (under 100g a day), make sure your bar has no less than 20g protein in a single serve.

  • If you're watching your carb intake, make sure your bar has less than 20% of its calories coming from carbs (you can calculate this by multiplying the grams of carbs by 4, then dividing THAT number by the total number of calories in the bar).

  • If you're concerned about your intake of ultraprocessed food, look for bars with fewer than 4g of added sugar, and fewer anti-nutritive compounds (like gums, stabilisers, etc.)

My most-recommended bars are those that hit the above considerations, such as Pure Protein bars (lowest calorie), Musashi bars (highest protein), Quest bars (lower net carbs), and ALOHA bars (more unprocessed ingredients).

Honourable mentions for having at least 20g protein and tasting awesome are ONE bars, CarbKilla Grenade bars, MyProtein Layered bars, Barebells bars, and PhD Smart bars.

Watch out for any bars that claim to be "protein" bars on the box or package - but contain fewer than 15g protein (or more than 250 calories) per serve. These are often the result of savvy food distributors trying to rebrand what used to be known as "granola bars" or "energy bars" as protein bars, though they're actually closer to candy bars than nutritional powerhouses (Nature Valley, Carman's, CLIF, RXBar, Tasti and KIND bars fall into this category).

From here, let's broaden the conversation to protein "products" - this includes not only protein powders, but protein pasta, cookies, Pop-Tarts, peanut butter cups, potato chips, and ice creams.

Protein powder is always going to top the charts on proportion of protein - meaning, it is the purest way to get extra protein without getting carbs, sugar or fats along with it (there is no "protein only" bar, sadly, unless you count dried chicken breast jerky as a "bar").

I recommend a whey isolate protein if you can tolerate dairy since it's the highest protein bang for your calorie/macro buck; if you're dairy-free you can also consider egg white or beef, and if you're animal-free you can try pea isolate, soy isolate, or simply collagen peptides.

As for the protein products, my general rule is: buyer beware. Before you enter the increasingly absurd (though occasionally delicious!) world of protein cookies, pastries, and other treats, make sure you know how to read and assess nutrition labels (get literate in terms like calories per serving, total carbs, net carbs, added sugar, fibre, protein, total fat and saturated fat) so you know exactly what you're getting - and can tell if it's actually any better than the "normal" food alternative.

The example I always give is the aforementioned "protein peanut butter cup" (linked above) - a fave among my clients because they seem too good to be true. But if we put the QUEST cups against good ol' regular Reese's, here's what you get: QUEST Cups (190 cals - 15g fat / 9 saturated, 13g carbs / 4g fibre / 1g sugar, 11g protein) vs. Reese's Cups (220 cals - 13g fat / 4.5 saturated, 24g carbs / 2g fibre / 22g sugar, 5g protein). As an indulgence, the QUEST Cups will at least give you 23% of calories from protein, only 9g net carbs and barely any sugar - though they're closely on-par calories wise and contain double the saturated fat as Reese's.

Point is, protein products will rarely come close to the protein percentages possible in natural, whole foods (chicken breast and fat-free Greek yogurt get about 80% of their calories from protein; eggs and lentils still about 34%), so make sure to choose processed protein products simply to help "fill the gap" on your daily intake (which, by the way, should be ~2g per KG of bodyweight or about 1g per pound) - not replace whole-food sources of true, quality protein.

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