We’ve all been there – you’ve been trying really hard to eat healthfully, manage your weight and meet your nutritional needs, but life gets in the way. If you find yourself in need of quick nutrition on the road or when you simply don’t have the time or ability to conduct proper meal planning and prep, you might consider eating a meal replacement bar.
The good news is they can be a good option for occasional use. The bad news is they aren’t going to solve all your time-crunched nutritional needs.
What Are Meal Replacement Bars?
“Meal replacement bars are typically a synthetic (manmade) bar consisting of a carbohydrate, protein and fat,” says Roy Gildersleeve, a registered dietitian at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus.
“Meal replacement bars differ from protein bars, snack bars, energy bars and granola bars in that they provide a very specific combination of macro- and micro-nutrients,” says Megan Wroe, wellness manager and registered dietitian at St. Jude Medical Center in Southern California. Many of these products are intended to help with weight loss, but others might be targeted towards helping you gain muscle or simply be a convenient form of eating on the go.
The exact makeup of these bars varies by manufacturer and flavor, but a decent bar will contain:
- Protein. Some contain an animal-based protein, such as whey or casein. Others are plant-based and may be suitable for vegetarian or vegan diets. These plant proteins may come from hemp, pea, rice or soy protein.
- Carbohydrates. Complex and simple carbs, such as naturally occurring or added sugars, are typically included in meal replacement bars. These may be derived from dried fruit and oats or other whole grains.
- Fats. Healthy fats are a key part of any well-rounded diet. Avocados, olive oil, nuts and seeds are all good sources of healthy fats that may show up on your bar’s label.
- Fiber. Fiber is a type of complex carbohydrate that helps with blood sugar and hunger control. Fiber is also helpful with controlling bowel regularity and improving lipids, including your cholesterol level. It’s added to many bars.
- Vitamins and minerals. These bars are typically enriched with some or all of your recommended daily requirement of key vitamins and minerals to help ensure complete nutrition. “If you’re someone who struggles with getting in a variety of whole foods or doesn’t take a multivitamin,” these bars can help bring you over the goal line, Gildersleeve says.
In addition to those basic components, some bars have other ingredients. For example, “to help keep sugar low, most bars also contain a sugar-substitute like Splenda or Stevia,” Gildersleeve says. Other ingredients may include preservatives or binders to help maintain the shelf-life of the bars without having to keep them refrigerated.
In selecting a good bar, opt for ones that contain foods as close to their original forms, says Michelle Mix, a registered dietitian and owner of The Nutrition Mix, a nutrition consultancy based in the greater Boston area. “Most higher quality meal replacement bars are made from whole foods and contain nuts, seeds, dried fruits and whole grains. These ingredients also provide a significant amount of fiber and protein.”
Benefits of Meal Replacement Bars
“Meal replacement bars are designed to provide the same balance of macronutrients that might be found in a meal,” Mix says. “They’re a great choice for meals-on-the-go, especially when traveling and healthier choices might not be readily available, or during an activity such as hiking when you may not have space or want to carry the full weight of a packed lunch.”
Beyond sheer convenience, bars can also play a key role in keeping you on track if you’re trying to lose weight. Gildersleeve notes that “in weight management, we use them as a convenient and healthy snack – especially for people on the go.”
Especially if you’re at the beginning of your weight loss journey and struggling with determine what’s healthy and how to manage meal prep, Gildersleeve says bars can be a great time-saver and convenient way to maintain good nutrition.
Wroe agrees. “These bars can help those struggling with meal planning and portion sizing because there is no culinary skill needed and no decision making.” They can sometimes sub-in for a cooked breakfast on those really busy mornings.
They can also “act as a good ‘go-to’ option in between meals to help control hunger throughout the day and prevent overeating later. Many new studies are now looking at these bars and preliminary data suggests they do help support weight loss,” Gildersleeve adds. However, you need to watch your calorie intake if you’re using meal replacement bars as a snack. Clocking in at somewhere between 200 and 300 calories on average, they can actually derail weight loss efforts if you don’t offset those calories elsewhere in your day.
If you have a tendency to overconsume calories, meal replacement bars can help you “learn to be satiated on smaller amounts and often can help with blood sugar management since there is usually a good amount of protein in each bar,” Wroe says. But again, you need to be careful because these bars are often small and eating more than one at a time can rack up a lot of calories quickly.
“This blood sugar control can be key for someone with metabolic risk, obesity or autoimmune concerns and who might otherwise not meet their protein needs when making their own meal or eating out,” she adds. Eating a meal replacement bar instead of skipping a meal can be better on your blood sugar levels.
While meal replacement bars can support your weight loss efforts, it’s important to note that meal replacement bars don’t contain a special supplement that causes weight loss. “Instead, they help take the guess work out of prep and provide you with a pre-portioned snack,” Gildersleeve says.
Because many types of meal replacement bars tend to be sweet, they can also be a healthy alternative that still satisfies those cravings.
In addition to the potential health benefits of using meal replacement bars occasionally when you need a quick bite, Gildersleeve says they can also offer some financial advantages. “One of the biggest benefits of using these bars my patients express is cost. Since many are under $1, they’re cheaper than most snacks out there. They also have a long shelf life and won’t end up going bad like many of the vegetables or fruits found in the bottom drawer of most of our fridges.”
However, Wroe cautions that equating bars to meals in terms of cost “isn’t a fair comparison. Meal for meal, bars will almost always come out cheaper. Even the high end, better ingredient options that I endorse for occasional use do not tend to cost more than $5 per bar, which is definitely cheaper than any balanced meal you can order or make on your own.”
But, if you look a little deeper at the “cost per nutrient, that’s where we aren’t comparing apples to apples,” she explains. “Meal replacement bars don’t come close to offering the nutrition that real food does.”
Further, she notes that if you’re making your own food, it can be more cost-effective. “Let’s take for example a family of three that spends $300 per week on groceries. This is $100 per week per person, which is less than $5 per meal. And that’s only considering three meals per day, not snacks. So, while in the moment, bars seem more cost effective, a little meal prep can go a long way in making real food more affordable.”
Watch the Sugar
Though meal replacement bars can be supremely convenient and a good way to make sure you maintain good nutrition when you can’t sit down to a meal with whole foods, Mix warns that you do still need to be careful when selecting a bar. “Some bars can contain hidden added sugars, so reading ingredient labels is important when choosing a brand.”
She says the best bars contain whole foods that have been minimally processed.
Look for a bar that contains close to:
- 20 grams of protein.
- 5 grams of fiber.
- No added sugars.
- Fewer than 200 calories.
- Less than 10 grams of carbs.
- Less than 10 grams of fat.
There is another element to keep an eye out for, says Gildersleeve. “Some bars – usually ones geared toward the diabetic or bodybuilding community – will contain sugar-alcohols that can cause some abdominal discomfort, gas or diarrhea when consumed in excess.” If you’re avoiding FODMAP foods, best steer clear of these sweeteners that are derived from sugar but don’t cause blood sugar to rise.
Sugar alcohols can disrupt the gut microbiome and cause gastrointestinal distress, and may also “lead to enhanced sugar cravings or intense hunger since the body did not receive the sugar that the brain thought it would be getting from the taste sensation,” Wroe adds.
Even if you’re not especially sensitive to sugar alcohols, Gildersleeve says your best bet is to look for bars that contain less than 10 grams of sugar alcohols. Common names for these additives include:
Read the Label
In addition to sugar and sugar alcohols, you should also check the label for any potential food allergens. “Many of these bars contain common food allergens such as nuts, eggs and soy,” Gildersleeve says.
Wroe also warns to look out for refined oils, and if you have celiac disease or are sensitive to gluten, be aware that gluten is often included as a binder and you should avoid the product.
“The biggest mistake I see people make with these bars is they choose something closer to a granola bar, which is high in carbs and sugar and low in protein,” Gildersleeve says. Check the label. If the protein content is in the “single digits and carbs are in the double digits, there’s probably a better option out there.”
To avoid granola bars and other high-sugar options, carefully read the labels when comparing bars and select the one with the lowest number of carbs. If it’s labeled as a granola bar specifically, it’s probably higher in sugar than another option.
Wroe adds that you need to look beyond the basic nutrition label to the actual ingredients list, because not all meal replacement bars are the same. “The difference between bars lies in what they’re made of. Look for ingredients you recognize and ask yourself if you could find those ingredients yourself and mix them together to make a bar. If so, it’s likely not a bad option. If you have no idea where you would even find the ingredients – or if they sound more like chemicals than food – then put that one down and check out the next one.”
An Occasional Option
In all cases, Wroe says bars are simply a “tool to keep you on track on days where you otherwise wouldn’t. They’re not real food meant to be eaten consistently over long periods of time.”
Mix agrees, adding “they shouldn’t replace real meals frequently, but are a great option when fresh food or time isn’t available.”
And because they’re “typically available at convenience stores and gas stations, they can be a much better alternative than the chips or fast food also available on the road,” Gildersleeve adds.
Wroe agrees. “Meal replacement bars are a far cry from the nutrition of a meal made from real food.” But if your only options are “French fries and a burger or a meal replacement, the bar is likely the healthier option.”