What’s healthier: protein bar or burger?

By Khala Hurd March 16, 2022 | 5 MIN READ


Health and Nutrition

The Dirt

How is sugar sneaking into your diet? Three out of four Americans are overweight, which is why many of us turn to healthier snacks with more protein as an alternative to potato chips and cookies. But many of these “healthy” snacks exceed our daily sugar intake. Are we getting fooled again?


What’s healthier: protein bar or burger?

How is sugar sneaking into your diet? Many of us turn to protein bars as an alternative to sugary snacks. But many of these “healthy” snacks have more sugar than a candy bar. Are we getting fooled?


Health and Nutrition

By Khala Hurd March 16, 2022 | 5 MIN READ

The Dirt

How is sugar sneaking into your diet? Three out of four Americans are overweight, which is why many of us turn to healthier snacks with more protein as an alternative to potato chips and cookies. But many of these “healthy” snacks exceed our daily sugar intake. Are we getting fooled again?

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I was talking with a colleague one day about all of the different types of protein bars on the market. As someone who enjoys weightlifting, I am always looking for ways to add more protein into my diet, so we talked about which brands we liked and didn’t like. My colleague finally said, “I guess I was just looking for a reason to have a candy bar.” And, just like that, it clicked.

I quickly remembered my other friend telling me her favorite part of the day is when she gets to have a protein bar because it’s like a treat. I thought to myself, “Hold on, are these bars healthy or dessert?” I thought they’re supposed to be giving our bodies the nutrients it needs at that given time. Yet, so many Americans are unknowingly doing the opposite, pumping their bodies full of unnecessary sugar and fat when all they’re really looking for is a bump in protein to keep them fuller longer, get through the afternoon, or aid in muscle growth and recovery.

When snacks like some types of protein bars, granola bars, trail mix, and other similar foods are advertised as “healthy” choices with “real ingredients,” it’s no surprise the consumer is more confused than ever.

A Turn To “Healthy” Snacks

In response to the never-ending desire of many Americans to lose weight, companies met the demand by creating snack options that are filling and boast a higher protein content. With nutrition and health becoming more of a priority among younger generations, especially among those incorporating weight lifting into their regime, snacks with nuts, nut butters, added protein, and other seemingly healthy components seem like the perfect solution.

For this reason, we’ve recently begun regarding snacks like granola, granola bars, and protein bars as “healthy”, even in statistical reports. For example, in 2019, data collected from the U.S. Census and National Center for Health Statistics suggested that over 165 million American consumers said they consumed “healthy” snacks in the last year. However, the main “healthy” snack of choice was granola.

Who said granola was healthy and why do we believe them? According to Insider’s interview with Kim Larson, a registered dietician and nutritionist and media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, granola, granola bars, and energy bars are rated as the second most unhealthy snack group you can eat. They come in right behind potato chips, crackers, and corn puffs — and are even regarded as more unhealthy than pastries and baked goods. If you venture further down the list, trail mix even made the list at #7.

How Are They Unhealthy?

It all comes down to sugar and saturated fat content. The Palinski-Wade Rule of 5, created by registered dietician Erin Palinski-Wade, states that for a granola bar to be good for us, it should contain at least 5 grams each of fiber, protein, and unsaturated fat. And, of course, they shouldn’t have the same sugar amount as a candy bar which, unfortunately, many do.

We know nuts are good for us (good sources of healthy fats such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, and low in unhealthy, saturated fats), and since trail mix and granola bars contain nuts, wouldn’t those be good for us, too? We considered these questions as we dove deeper into this subject. But when you think about it, is a nutbar covered in milk chocolate really good for you?

A PowerBar Lemon Cheesecake protein bar contains 341 calories, 6 grams of fat, 32 grams of protein, and a whopping 25 grams of sugar. A Snickers bar is 245 calories and contains only 22 grams of sugar! Granted, the amount of protein contributes to the calories of the PowerBar, but so does the high sugar component. Just go all in and have a Snicker’s candy bar instead.

Another example of a candy bar-like energy bar is a chocolate chip Clif bar. I used to eat these all the time in college, especially when I didn’t have time to eat a meal between classes. If I’d known what I was putting in my body then, I would have been appalled! A chocolate chip Clif bar contains 21 grams of sugar, a higher sugar content than two glazed Krispy Kreme donuts! And, the ingredients in Clif bars are also something to watch out for, like brown rice syrup, which is basically pure glucose and can cause major spikes in blood sugar.

protein bars, What’s healthier: protein bar or burger?

And It’s Not Just Protein Bars…

Even other healthy snacks, such as flavored yogurt, are not that good for us. A plain vanilla Yoplait yogurt contains 17 grams of added sugar – 65% of our recommended daily maximum sugar of 26 grams (for women, 36 for men) right there! Even Greek yogurt, known to be the healthiest, has up to 24 grams of sugar in its flavored yogurts.

When looking at the macronutrients of a McDonald’s cheeseburger, and comparing it to a packaged protein snack, you may be very surprised. A McDonald’s cheeseburger has 300 calories, 13 grams of fat, 32 grams of total carbs and 7 grams of sugar. Let’s compare this to a Lenny and Larry’s Chocolate Chip Complete Protein cookie, which has 420 calories, 12 grams of fat, 60 grams of total carbs, and 24 grams of sugar. With a similar protein and fat profile, but considerably lower sugar and carbs, the McDonald’s cheeseburger is the clear winner for us.

protein bars, What’s healthier: protein bar or burger?

How Are We Being Fooled?

Somehow, the snacks we’re told are good for us may be as unhealthy as eating a donut or candy bar. How did it get to this? Well, it’s all about advertising and marketing strategies.

Companies know that consumers want to be healthy. Millennials and Gen Zers, myself included, pride ourselves on being “the best version of us,” drinking our oat milk lattes (19 grams of sugar), and eating our protein bars after a good workout in the gym (5-12 grams of sugar). We really like protein so we gravitate toward these bars.

Some of us really like following what celebrities and social media influencers tell us. What we usually forget is that most influencers and celebrities are being paid to advertise these products on their channels and don’t actually eat those 12 grams of sugar in their sponsored bar.

My social feeds contain tons of ads for “health foods,” like detox teas, protein bars, giant salads, smoothies, the list goes on and on. What they’re not telling me is that the detox tea is just regular tea and has no real health components. The salad has more calories and fat than a simple sandwich or wrap. And, the fruit in the smoothie has been stripped of almost all its nutrients and fiber when it was juiced. Yet, we still trust them. Why?

Is it because the only information we’re getting on healthy eating is from social media? Possibly. Or maybe it’s because we align with certain company’s views? I’m a huge Starbucks fan because of their sustainability goals with respect to water conservation and reforestation practices, so I don’t mind buying one of their breakfast sandwiches with 11 grams of saturated fat and over 400 calories. Starbucks would never sell me something bad, that’s just not them. Think again!

Marketing is Strategic…Here’s What We Can Do

As consumers, we should know it is not our fault we are falling for these calculated marketing strategies. That’s what these companies are paying for…of course, it’s going to work! But we don’t have to be a victim. There are so many things we can do to make sure what we’re putting in our bodies is the BEST thing for us.

protein bars, What’s healthier: protein bar or burger?

Try eating a banana with nut butter instead of a protein bar. Incorporating whole foods such as these into your diet will give you better results than the processed bar, and keep you fuller longer. And always ask questions! We have Google and smartphones for a reason, use them!

If you truly want to eat “healthier,” limit your intake of processed bars. For example, if you want a quick, tasty, nutrient-dense snack, choose a high-quality 85% dark chocolate bar instead of a sugary milk chocolate one. We like Lily’s as it uses stevia instead of sugar.

If you’re accustomed to eating protein bars as your post-workout snack, substitute that with a protein shake, nuts or even a canned fish or grilled chicken salad for a non-processed, high-protein snack that’s healthier than any bar you could grab.

A Few Good Options…

protein bars, What’s healthier: protein bar or burger?If you’re still unsure which bar to eat, here are a few options that have at least 5 grams each of fiber, protein, and unsaturated fats, as well as very little added sugar. If you want to try your hand at a DIY bar, check out this recipe.

And the list doesn’t stop here…for instance, some Kind bar varieties have lower added sugar. Just be sure to check out the nutrition label.

And, as we always say…when you’re in doubt, you can make your own!

Happy & healthy snacking!

The Bottom Line

Choose not to fall victim to advertising ploys and clever marketing strategies. No matter how highly we think of a brand, always remember to read the labels and ask questions. It will make all the difference between fueling our bodies with good food and harming our bodies with excess sugar.