If you are an athlete, eating can be a full-time job. The more active you are, the more calories you burn, and replacing those calories is crucial to maintain performance, overall health, and wellbeing. In order to raise caloric intake, many people turn to meal replacement options for their convenience and portability. There are many meal replacement options out there and choosing the right one will be dependent on your personal and nutritional goals. Of the factors to consider, satiety, weight loss, energy, and muscle recovery are at the top of the list. You should consult a doctor or nutritionist to find out how to optimally supplement your diet, but if this is not feasible, you will have to identify what your general goals are.
For most non-athletes, weight loss is one of the allures of choosing meal replacement bars. Meal replacement serves the purpose of providing the body with satiety via higher dietary fiber with fewer calories than a full meal. Foods with high dietary fiber are harder to digest and therefore make you feel more full than eating foods low in fiber. If your goal is to lose weight and feel satiated until your next meal, choose a bar comprised of whole fruits and grains and lower in calories.
Post Workout Recovery
If your goal is to recover between workouts, choose bars that are higher in protein. Adequate protein intake following a workout is beneficial for muscle recovery. You will also want to find a bar that has a good amount of complex carbohydrates and as little sugar as possible. The type of protein used in meal replacements varies substantially, but the gold standard for post-workout recovery is whey protein. Plant based alternatives include pea protein and brown rice protein, which are preferred by some for their environmental sustainability.
Plenty of research suggests that the majority of people have some nutrient deficiency. If you want to supplement your diet to maintain optimal levels of micronutrients, you will want to find a meal replacement bar that is fortified with vitamins and minerals. Note that many meal replacement bar manufacturers chemically synthesize their micronutrients in a lab, so choosing a bar that is minimally processed and sourced from whole foods is healthier to ensure adequate nutritional content.
What to Avoid
Meal replacement bars are typically marketed as healthy alternatives to meals but this is rarely the case. There are many items on the ingredients list to avoid. The easiest test for choosing the right meal replacement bar is to look at the ingredients and see how many words you cannot pronounce. This may seem like a joke, but meal replacement companies frequently use chemicals and artificial ingredients to cut nutritional corners and deceive people with artificial tastes and textures.
The definitions of artificial and natural flavors are confusing, but the gist is that a natural flavor is any chemical extract from some preexisting food material that is intended to add flavor instead of provide nutritional value. That being said, artificial and natural flavoring can be deceptive as companies will use chemical synthetics to trick people into believing that what they are eating is natural. For example, researchers have been able to extract vanilla flavor from cow feces, so consider this fact the next time you are eating something with “natural vanilla flavor”.
Also, there are many long-term health risks associated with artificial flavoring including, but not limited to, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and mental illness. Be skeptical when a company uses “natural” to describe their product and avoid “artificial” flavoring at all costs.
Sugar and Artificial Sweeteners
Many meal replacement bars have added sweeteners. Bars with high sugar content can be a quick energy fix when you are about to crash, but added sweeteners should mostly be avoided. Artificial sweeteners are also used in place of sugar to offer foods that maintain sweetness with fewer calories. Research has suggested that chemically synthesized sweeteners have been linked to health risks such as metabolic syndrome and diabetes. If you must have something sweet, choose a bar that uses organic cane sugar, coconut sugar, or honey.
Sugar alcohols are neither sugar nor alcohol. They are, however, derived from sugar and largely used as a thickener or sweetener in meal replacement bars. One reason they are commonly used is that their molecular components bind to water molecules and keep the bars from drying out. Since they are not entirely digestible, the consumption of excess sugar alcohols leads to gastrointestinal issues such as flatulence, bloating, and diarrhea.
Replacing Your Meals Healthily
Due to the high amount of processing, artificial sweeteners, and flavoring prevalent in most meal replacement bars, it is important that you choose one made with whole foods and minimally processed. Once you get past the challenge of finding something non-artificial and low in sugar, you can focus on other nutritional aspects that suit your individual needs.
In order to find a high quality meal replacement bar or supplement, look at the label specifically for badges such as “NSF”, “NonGMO Verified” and other information such as “No Sugar Added”. NSF is a large, third party organization that confirms products are exactly what they say they are and up to public health standards. These badges are helpful in determining that quality of the product you are about to consume.
I selected the bars in these pages for review based on having no genetically modified organisms (NonGMO), made with whole food ingredients and minimal processing.
260 Calories (100 from fat)/Carbohydrates 30g/Fiber 1g/Sugar 10g/Protein 11g
GoMacro is sustainably sourced with whole foods ingredients. The bar tastes similar to granola. It is marketed as a protein bar; however, there are only 11g per serving.
Superfood Protein (Dark Chocolate, Coconut, Sea Salt)
200 calories (80 from fat)/25g Carbohydrates/5g Fiber/11g Sugars/10 g Protein
This Healthy Warrior is made with plant proteins and superfoods such as chia, quinoa, and oats. This bar was also marketed as a protein bar but has only 10 grams.
200 Calories (Fat Cal 70)/25g Carbohydrates/11g Fiber/12g Sugars/15g Protein
The Proteins+ bar is pretty well rounded with lots of carbs, fiber and protein. The fermented Greek yogurt shell has a good taste and helps with digestion. I felt the most full after eating this one.
Organic Plant-Based Performance Protein Bar (Chocolate Fudge)
280 Calories (Fat Cal 80)/34g Carbohydrates/10g Dietary Fiber/8g Sugar/20g Protein
Garden of Life is the only bar of the group that advertised its NSF and Informed Choice standings for quality. These bars are marketed as protein bars, designed to aid in muscle recovery and fuel for exercise. The taste was sweet with a rich, chocolate flavor. It also had a nice, crispy texture.
Protein Bar (Chocolate Mint)
270 Calories (130 from fat)/24g Carbohydrates/4g Fiber/17g Sugars/15g Protein
Rise is a small batch company meaning that they do not mass produce their product. These bars had a great taste, though the flavor was not robust. These were completely simple with few ingredients. I actually felt satiated and did not get hungry again for some time.
Eating clean and healthy meals should always be at the top of the dieting priority list, but life does get in the way and a quick fix is necessary sometimes. Meal replacements, therefore, should never be a permanent dietary solution unless prescribed by a doctor. After trying out these bars and taking their nutritional values into account, here are my thoughts:
The Rise and Genuine Health bars both left me feeling full and sustained for the next few hours of my day. Based on the amount of dietary fiber, however, the Garden of Life bar would be a solid choice for sustainability.
The Garden of Life would be my choice because of its higher protein and carbohydrate content. It had a sweeter taste but a low amount of sugars and a higher amount of dietary fibers than the other bars.
If my goal was supplemental, the Healthy Warrior promises the most nutrient dense meal replacement with its variety of superfoods. The supplemental component to choosing a bar here is widely subjective. A healthcare professional should be consulted to find out what nutrients you are deficient in so that you can make a more informed and objective choice.