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Protein bars vs energy bars: A nutritional showdown of popular on-the-go snacks

From gym goers to workaholics – packages of seemingly healthy ingredients like seeds, grains, and nut butters have found many takers. However, the labels on the said wrappers can vary wildly – often with tall claims of health benefits. We’re placing the two most popular ones – protein bars and energy bars – vs each other to help you make the smarter choice come grocery day.

With convenience being the name of the game in the modern-day hustle culture – ready-to-heat curries, pre-sliced vegetables, and salads-to-go have begun populating the aisles of supermarkets. And with a simultaneous increase in awareness around fitness and healthy eating – treats at the point of purchase have gone from featuring just candy to seemingly more nutritious options – bars. Their pop culture fame arrived with the cult classic Mean Girls, when Regina George limits her diet to a few a day to lose weight. (Kälteen Bars, anyone?)

These come in a range of options – meal replacement, energy, snack, whole food, vegan, and fibre – promising to cater to everyday requirements in just a few bites. Of them, the more popular are labelled protein and energy. Spanning several price points – these spotlight a potpourri of ingredients – eggs to chia seeds – and seem similar on the surface. However, put them under a microscope and you’ll discover a few things that set them apart. We’re having the two go head-to-head with each other to see which one’s more worthy of being tossed into our grocery carts.

What are protein bars?

As the name suggests, protein bars promise to give you megadoses of the micronutrient, without having to sit down for an elaborate meal. Marked by a higher proportion of protein – as opposed to carbohydrates and fats – the whole-food options feature ingredients ranging from amino-acid rich oats and quinoa to conventional options like egg whites and seeds. More concentrated, highly-processed options include popular ingredients including plant-based protein like soy, pea, and brown rice as well as whey protein (whole or isolates). Yoghurt powder is also an increasingly common feature. As per the US Department Of Agriculture, protein bars can contain anywhere between 10-30 grams of protein. They also contain lower levels of carbs, fibre, and micronutrients like calcium, potassium, B vitamins, and iron.

A convenient source of nutrients for fitness enthusiasts who lead busy lifestyles – protein bars can aid post-workout muscle repair, replace a meal, and prevent overeating (courtesy of their fibre content). They also last a long time. This is why they’re a popular option for those looking to lose weight. However, they often come with high amounts of added unhealthy sugar – including high fructose corn syrup. Additionally, considering how the average person does consume enough protein on a daily basis, you might not need to supplement with a protein bar. An exception to this are athletes, who often dig into protein bars since their consumption of the nutrient is greater than the general population – for muscle hypertrophy.

What are energy bars?

These bars – often containing whole ingredients oats, nuts, seeds, fruits, and grains – promise to provide quick bursts of energy. They might – like protein bars – also contain added nutrients and come in a range of flavours – chocolate to matcha. However, they’re high in carbohydrates, with typical values being around the 20-40 mark. Lower amounts of protein, fat, and nutrients complete each serving.

Not only are they good for battling malnutrition, they’re also used by athletes to get pumped for marathons or other high-energy activities. Fitness enthusiasts also dig into one before a workout to help get in some extra reps. They also work well as healthy snacks, especially for those with busy schedules that have them being constantly on the go. That said, it’s key to look for options that don’t come packed with sugar and other unhealthy ingredients.

Protein bars vs energy bars: Key differences and similarities

Protein Bars vs Energy Bars

The straight answer is that while protein bars are best suited for those leading a lifestyle that requires them to supplement with the micronutrient in high doses, energy bars double up as good options to offer a burst of energy and prevent exhaustion and sugar crashes. That aside, there are a few similarities and differences worth taking note of.

  • Ingredients: Both protein and energy bars contain ingredients like nuts, seeds, grains, honey, chocolate, coffee, and more. However, the former is more likely to feature protein isolates and other amino-acid rich ingredients while the latter looks at carbohydrates to provide energy.
  • Nutritional value: While energy bars are calorie and carbohydrate dense – so as to fuel the body with glycogen – protein bars are low in calories and carbohydrates. Both contain a range of micronutrients and will keep you sated for a long time.
  • Best time to eat: Several experts recommend digging into a protein bar about 30 minutes after strength training to help repair muscles and build lean mass. Energy bars, on the other hand, can be consumed at any given time – in between meals as a snack or about 40 minutes before heading to the gym to have a satisfying workout. Both work well as meal replacements.
  • Benefits: Protein bars build muscle while energy bars help with efficiency in short bursts. Both help in weight loss – provided they’re eaten at the right time and manner and are a part of a well-rounded lifestyle of diet and exercise.
  • Drawbacks: Both protein bars and energy bars might come with high amounts of added sugars – not quite healthy an option. They also might have a range of undisclosed ingredients and are not the most essential for a person who follows a well-rounded diet.

Convenience aside, when in doubt, opt to whip up your own bars at home. Although they take a bit of prep time, doing so helps pick the right ingredients for your specific dietary and lifestyle needs while ensuring you’re not consuming far more calories and sugar than you need to.

All images: Courtesy Shutterstock

Protein bars vs energy bars: A nutritional showdown of popular on-the-go snacks

Eshita is a food, alcohol, travel, and entertainment writer who spends her days thinking of the next big trend to write about. She’s a communication graduate with bylines in Conde Nast Traveller India, GQ India, Deccan Herald, and Girls Buzz. When not at work, you’re likely to find her hunting for a good read or charting out the perfect itinerary for a solo trip across Asia.


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