It’s Monday morning and you’ve hit the snooze one too many times. There’s no time to cook breakfast (or even throw together a bowl of cereal, for that matter), so you grab a protein bar to go. Protein’s important, so it’s a good choice to hold you over until lunch, right?
Truth is, not all bars are created equal. And though protein bars are handy as a portable snack between meals or a meal replacement, there are certain things to look out for when selecting a bar, says Keri Gans, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.N., author of The Small Change Diet. First, she says to keep an eye on the calorie count of protein bars, which span a wide range of 150 calories to 400 calories, depending on the variety.
Additionally, check out the nutrition label to ensure the bar isn’t packed with sugar and the ingredient list is full of whole foods. “Protein bars can be a great snack, but some of them are very high in sugar and low in nutrient density,” says says Mascha Davis, M.P.H., R.D.N., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. It can be tricky to find one that checks all the boxes for you, so we broke down exactly what to shop for and suggested our top expert-approved picks.
How to choose the healthiest protein bars
- Choose wholesome ingredients: Flip to the ingredient list and look for whole ingredients at the top, like nuts and fruits, instead of added sugars, says Davis.
- Check the sugar: The lower the better, but Davis recommends staying below 12 grams of sugar per bar. Plus, be sure to pay extra attention to the type of sugar if you tend to have stomach issues, says Heather Mangieri, R.D.N., C.S.S.D. Many brands opt to use sugar alcohols (like sorbitol, xylitol, erythritol, and maltitol) to add sweetness without increasing carbohydrate content. These can occasionally cause gas and bloating, so avoid them if you experience gastrointestinal discomfort.
- Find your ideal calorie range: For a snack between meals or post-workout, stick to bars between 180 and 250 calories, says Davis. If you plan to use a protein bar as an occasional meal replacement, aim for a bar (or include additional calories) to reach around 400 calories, Gans says.
- Pack in the protein: Your protein bar should have between six to 12 grams of protein to keep you full and help build muscle, says Karen Ansel, M.S., R.D.N., author of Healing Superfoods For Anti-Aging. Gans suggests aiming for a minimum of 10 grams of protein if using as a meal replacement.
- Feel full with fiber: Ansel suggests looking for at least two-to-three grams of fiber to make your bar more satiating and help slow the release of sugar into your system. To encourage this, Gans says a good rule of thumb is to find a bar that has more grams of fiber than grams of added sugar.
Even with those basic guidelines, there is an overwhelming number of protein bars on the market, so we’ve asked the pros to recommend their favorites. Here are the best protein bars you can try, when to eat them, and why you’ll love them.
When to eat it: You need something to hold you over until dinner.
Why they’re great: These bars are created by dietitians, meaning they’re full of whole ingredients, like almond butter, dark chocolate, and fruits. Plus, they are high in protein and fiber, which will help you stay full between meals. They’re also great for snackers because they come in satisfying flavors like dark chocolate mint and chocolate mocha, says Davis.
Our fave flavor: Dark Chocolate Mint ( 210 cal, 10 g pro, 22 g carb, 10 g fiber, 7 g sugars (0 g added sugars), 11 g fat (2.5 g sat fat), 100 mg sodium)
When to try it: You’re traveling and want to avoid junk food.
Why they’re great: Choosing healthy snacks is tough when you’re on the go, but no matter where you end up, you’ll probably find a KIND Bar as an option. They have a great texture since they’re mostly made with nuts and seeds, lots of unique sweet and savory flavors, around 12 grams of protein, and typically less than 10 grams of sugar—perfect for a pick-me-up.
Our fave flavor: White Chocolate Cinnamon Almond ( 230 cal, 12 g pro, 18 g carb, 5 g fiber, 9 g sugars (6 g added sugars), 17 g fat (3.5 g sat fat), 110 mg sodium)
When to eat it: You’re craving dessert.
Why they’re great: It can be challenging to find a protein bar that satisfies your sweet tooth (and hunger) without a crazy amount of added sugar and chalky aftertaste. That’s why Quest Bars are a great pick: They come in some childhood favorite flavors like birthday cake, chocolate chip cookie dough, and cookies & cream, maxing out at just one to two grams of the sweet stuff.
Our fave flavor: Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough. Throw it in the microwave for 10 seconds to make a better-for-you alternative to the real thing, suggests Mangieri. ( 200 cal, 21 g pro, 21 g carb, 14 g fiber, 1 g sugars (0 g added sugars), 9 g fat (3 g sat fat), 200 mg sodium)
When to eat it: You’re going on a long hike or bike ride.
Why they’re great: While this bar is much higher in sugar, those extra carbs are important for a quick energy boost if you’re doing long-distance exercise, says Mangieri. And unlike many other bars, they won’t become a melted mess two miles into your sweaty trek (unless you grab the chocolate chip flavor.) Opt for a different bar that is lower in sugar and calories if you’re looking for a lazy snack.
Our fave flavor: Peanut Butter Banana with Dark Chocolate ( 260 cal, 10 g pro, 41 g carb, 4 g fiber, 21 g sugars (19 g added sugars), 7 g fat ( 2 g sat fat), 260 mg sodium)
When to eat it: You’re following a specific diet.
Why they're great: Primal Kitchen prides itself on creating gluten-free, dairy-free, Paleo-friendly, and Whole30-approved protein bars. Which means their bars rely on whole foods, like eggs, flaxseed, nuts, coconut oil, and real spices to infuse mouthwatering flavor. With eight to nine grams of protein and only two grams of sugar, these bars are a good choice for basically any diet out there, whether you’re going low-carb or high-protein.
Our fave flavor: Almond Spice ( 200 cal, 8 g pro, 9 g carb, 2 g fiber, 2 g sugars (1 g added sugars), 16 g fat ( 8 g sat fat), 115 mg sodium)
When to eat it: You’re looking for simple ingredients.
Why they’re great: RXBARs’ claim to fame is their “No B.S.” ingredients list. It fits on the front of the bar’s packaging because it’s that short. While they tend to be a bit higher in the sugar department, the sweet stuff only comes from whole f00ds, like dates and dark chocolate. As for protein? A typical bar will offer more than 10 g in the form of egg whites and nuts.
Our fave flavor: Mixed Berry (210 cal, 12 g pro, 24 g carb, 5 g fiber, 15 g sugars (0 g added sugars), 7 g fat ( 1g sat fat), 140 mg sodium)
When to eat it: You’re starving after strength training.
Why they’re great: ONE protein bars have a whopping 20 grams of protein and just one gram of sugar per serving. And with flavors like maple glazed doughnut and birthday cake, who could resist biting into one of these tasty snacks? These bars are sweetened with Stevia, so they won’t skyrocket your blood sugar levels, but they’re packed with the mouthwatering sweet flavor you crave. With a hefty dose of the muscle-building macronutrient, it’s best to eat after a tough workout—what a reward!
Our fave flavor: Maple Glazed Doughnut (230 cal, 20 g pro, 23 g carb, 3 g fiber, 1 g sugars (0 g added sugars), 8 g fat (6 g sat fat), 150 mg sodium)
When to eat it: You didn’t get to have breakfast at home.
Why they’re great: Health Warrior is most known for their chia bars, but these pumpkin seed bars are much higher in protein and are a great option for breakfast paired with some yogurt or fruit. Made with organic pumpkin seeds, wildflower honey, milled quinoa, and coconut oil, these bars are better than a bowl of milk and cereal at home.
Our fave flavor: Honey Sea Salt ( 190 cal, 7 g pro, 10 g carb, 2 g fiber, 6 g sugars (5 g added sugars), 13 g fat (3.5 g sat fat), 65 mg sodium)
When to eat it: You need an energy boost.
Why they’re great: Packed with soy protein isolate and whey protein, this bar is great when you need sustained energy fast. It’s also an ideal option post-workout because it contains quality protein to boost muscle recovery. Just be sure to pair with a fiber-packed food (like a pear or apple) to balance the bar. There’s something for everyone—from chocolate mint to lemon delight to maple
Our fave flavor: White Chocolate (230 cal, 20 g pro, 24 g carb, 0 g fiber, 0 g sugars (0 g added sugars), 8 g fat (3.5 g sat fat), 200 mg sodium)
When to eat it: You’re looking for plant-based, wholesome ingredients.
Why they’re great: With just five ingredients, these bars lean into the lupini bean, which is a complete protein and excellent source of fiber. Plus, the bar contains ground ginger and pumpkin seeds for a lovely fall flavor you can enjoy year round. Though the sugar count is high on these bars, it’s all coming from natural ingredients, like dates.
Our fave flavor: Cashew Ginger Pumpkin Seed ( 200 cal, 9 g pro, 21 g carb, 7 g fiber, 15 g sugars (0 g added sugars), 9 g fat ( 1.5 g sat fat), 45 mg sodium)
When to eat it: You didn’t get to have breakfast at home.
Why they’re great: These banana bread-like bars are gluten free, and surprisingly filling when you didn’t have time to grab breakfast on the way out the door.
Our fave flavor: Banana Nut ( 220 cal, 9 g pro, 25 g carb, 7 g fiber, 9 g sugars (0 g added sugars), 12 g fat (1 g sat fat), 80 mg sodium)
When to eat it: You just finished a hard run or workout class.
Why they’re great: These gluten-free bars are perfect to crush your candy cravings and pack in some great protein and fiber. They have a reputation for tasting great, and use real peanut butter to get the nutty flavors you love.
Our fave flavor: Munchies ( 180 cal, 16 g pro, 15 g carb, 4 g fiber, 4 g sugars (3 g added sugars), 7 g fat ( 6 g sat fat), 100 mg sodium)