Protein, protein, protein…how much do you really need?
The biggest question I get asked as a dietitian is how much protein do I need?
Well, the answer might surprise you…
The RDA (recommended dietary allowance) for protein is 0.8g/kg of body weight for the average sedentary individual. This means that a 150lb person (68kg) needs roughly 54g of protein for an entire day which is equivalent to a 7oz sirloin steak. Now hear me when I say that if you are an active individual, post-menopausal woman, of youth age, pregnant, or elderly you will need more than this. Protein ranges are specific to sport, age, fitness level, goals, and more so if you need help, let’s work together on an individualized level to figure out what’s right for you.
With that said, we only get roughly 1-6% of energy from protein so this is truly a growth and repair nutrient…and a very important one at that! We need adequate protein to build new tissues, maintain and increase strength, boost metabolism, reduce injury, and more.
If you’re still needing to meet protein needs, and decide to reach that through a protein bar, let’s check out what’s going on below.
When looking at several different protein bars on the shelf, you will see many are glorified candy bars. Between a Snickers bar and Gatorade protein bar, the only massive difference is the amount of whey protein added in. But to remind you, neither a Snickers bar nor Gatorade bar will kill you, and I believe any food can fit into a healthy diet. We simply need to be conscious of how much and how often we consume these foods, and what other nutrients are being put into our bodies.
Protein Bar Formula:
Bars are typically made with a certain “formula” in mind. A good rule of thumb is to get half as many grams of protein as carbs, <10% saturated fat, and <10g of sugar. Garden of Life Sport for example showcases this formula by having 36g carbs, 20g protein, 8g sugar, and 10g fat (46% C, 25% P, 29% F). Another idea is to build a bar with 40% carbs, 30% fat, and 30% protein like the Balance bar to offer sustained energy and even blood sugar levels throughout the day. Their bars have 21g carbs, 15g protein, and 7g fat for an exact 40-30-30 ratio.
Choosing a bar with a good mixture of carbs, fats, and proteins is beneficial to ensure a balance of nutrients and a steady release of energy. Bars with only carbohydrates in them will spike blood sugar and lead to a drop not long after. But when picking a protein bar it truly comes down to your goals. Are you a training athlete who is trying to get in 20g protein every few hours to build or maintain healthy muscle mass? Are you needed a quick snack in between meetings? A meal replacement? Are you trying to get more protein into your diet because you may be lacking?
For The Training/Active Individual:
You will need a protein bar with ~20g of protein to help keep your body in positive nitrogen balance to build and repair muscle tissue. The body is unable to utilize more than 20-25g of protein at one time, so a bar with 30g of protein or more will likely be excreted out the body as waste. If you’re using this as a post-recovery option, shoot for getting twice the amount of protein in carbohydrates. (Ex. 40g carbs, 20g protein). Be aware of the sugar content but don’t get too hung up on this because chances are high if you’re training, you’re also burning through sugars very quickly as an athlete and you need the fuel.
For The On-The-Go Option:
For meal replacement look at a bar with >200 calories, and for a snack one with <200 calories. Keep in mind that everyone’s calorie ranges will vary and this is not a one size fits all statement! A shorter list of ingredients is better, more natural ingredients are best, and be aware of the sugar content and sugar alcohols.
I’ll briefly touch on this as I could have an entirely separate blog post dedicated to this topic. Essentially, sugar alcohols are carbohydrate derived sugar alternatives from natural or processed sources. Sugar alcohols contain no calories and are not digested well in the body. This is why large amounts may cause bloating, gas, diarrhea, etc. They have a similar chemical structure to sugar so we perceive a sweet taste, despite the fact that they are hundreds to thousands of times sweeter than regular sugar. Most sugar alcohols have shown an insignificant rise in blood sugar levels and impact on insulin secretion. However, the impact on taste receptors and the gut microbiome is still being tested. We do not know the long-term impacts of sugar alcohols on the body and research is still being done to know more. Common examples you may see include xylitol, erythritol, mannitol, sorbitol, maltitol, as well as many others.
Keep in mind that most bars today will have a good bit of sugar, sugar alcohols, saturated fat, and processed ingredients. Above are just a few examples of bars that are lower in those categories, and understand that i’m still learning the different brands on the market. I’d love to hear new products you find so share them with me please if you come across one! Don’t forget, you can always try making your own with whole food ingredients!