The Top 10 Real-Food Alternatives to Protein Bars
What’s Wrong With Protein Bars?
I ate protein bars, also called energy or power bars, for a long time because I thought they were healthy. Over time, though, I realized that they have some serious shortcomings. I do still eat them now and then, but more and more I’m choosing real-food alternatives. Protein bar alternatives can be real food like fruit, lean meats, whole grains, and even some sweetness. There are several reasons that I regularly eat alternatives to protein bars:
1. They are highly processed. I’m trying to eat whole, unprocessed foods, and highly processed protein bars are the opposite.
2. They often have a lot of sweeteners. This includes sugar and artificial sweeteners, neither of which are part of a good diet.
3. Protein bars taste weird. Even the so-called “whole food” energy bars have a processed taste to me—like weeks-old baby food. Gross, I know. I also tend to picture a laboratory when I’m eating one.
4. They are strangely not filling or satisfying. It took me a long time to realize this, but it’s true. I suspect it’s due to all of the fake ingredients and processed materials.
5. Protein bars seem to come in only three flavors: chocolate, peanut butter, and chocolate-peanut butter.
These are my main objections to these super-processed snacks, and why I have tried to come up with real-food alternatives to eating protein bars. This guide is the result of years of trying out other options to the power-bar snack.
Eating Right Makes You Healthy and Lean
I’m a 56-year-old man with a lot of wear and tear on my body, including years of hard living as a traveling musician, an improperly-healed torn ACL, an improperly-healed broken arm, and chronic immune system issues that resulted in major surgery. I’ve never been much of an athlete (last chosen for teams in high school, that kind of thing). There’s obesity in my family and I enjoy my evening scotch. Technically I should be a chubby mess.
But I’m not, as my photo here demonstrates. I don’t usually put myself on display, but it might help support the argument I’m making in this article. For the past 5 years, I have been consistently eating right and working out. After years of trying hard and working hard, I’m now in the best shape of my life. I run/walk an average of 30 miles a week and my typical afternoon workout includes a total of 75 pull-ups, 75 squats, and 150 push-ups (though not in a row — I’m not superman!). I’m currently learning to kite-board and training for my first full triathlon.
But most importantly, I always try to choose whole, single-ingredient food items, and that, more than anything, has changed my life. Diet is 80% of any fitness regime — as they say, you can’t outrun a bad diet. The food and nutrition tips here are straight out of my weekly routine. I hope my success will be a guide to you if you’re trying to get in shape and stay healthy!
The easiest diet is, you know, eat vegetables, eat fresh food. Just a really sensible healthy diet like you read about all the time.
— Drew Carey
What Makes a Good Replacement for a Protein Bar?
Here are some things to think about when you plan your protein bar replacement options:
1. You have to want it. Don’t pick foods that you’re pretty sure you’re not going to eat. Never really eat bananas? Then you’re not going to start just because they seem like a good protein bar substitute.
2. It has to keep. Although some of the ideas in this guide require refrigeration, most do not; these protein bar replacements are designed to take up minimal space and last for days.
3. It should be portable. Most of the ideas here are things you can keep in your backpack or handbag.
4. It doesn’t require a knife and fork. Or a spoon. You’re not sitting down to a meal; you’re munching on something healthy and filling to keep you going.
5. It’s healthy and made up of “whole foods.”
6. It has enough calories, and not empty sugar calories, to take care of your hunger.
1. An Apple (or an Orange) and a Handful of Almonds
This is just a great snack, and a good real-food substitute for that protein bar in your backpack. A piece of whole fruit like an apple is durable, and a baggie of almonds will last for weeks just hanging out in your backpack, purse, or handbag. I much prefer apples to oranges, because you don’t have to peel them and they’re more filling due in part to the pectin they contain. Almonds have a similar protein and fiber profile as peanuts, and taste better when you’re getting tired of peanuts and peanut butter.
There are many times that I reach for an apple and some almonds instead of a power bar. It’s way cheaper, about the same number of calories, and it contains only two whole-food ingredients. Compare that to a protein bar or meal replacement bar!
Apple — 90 calories
Orange — 50 calories
Almonds — 150 calories, 6 grams protein, 3.5 grams fiber
2. Half an Avocado and a Little Ranch Dressing
Avocados are one of nature’s perfect foods. They are surprisingly high in calories and fat, but it’s healthy fat, both saturated and unsaturated, and in an amount that fits with a balanced diet. That being said, of course you want to keep control and not eat more than one in a day (I have always found that store-bought guacamole is one way to go overboard, since you don’t have the whole fruit to tell you how much you’re really eating).
A half-avocado is just about the perfect serving, and even though it seems like it’s gone pretty fast I have always been surprised that about 15 minutes after I eat it I’m full, and I stay that way. That’s thanks to all that fat, which is filling (and remember that you need to eat some fat every day). This makes an avocado an excellent protein bar alternative, since you stay full longer than you do with a power bar.
The ranch dressing is just my preference — you could use any kind you like. It adds a bit more fat but it really enhances the flavor of the fruit. I know that the dressing is processed and you could do without it, so if you want to just roll with a little lemon juice, go for it.
Half avocado — 150 calories, 7 grams fiber(!), 2 grams protein
One teaspoon light ranch dressing — 75 calories
3. A Hard-Boiled Egg and Some Whole-Grain Chips
Hard-boiled eggs are an absolute staple in my diet, and I eat one almost every day. Eggs are high in cholesterol (and so is shrimp — weird, right?), but new research has shown that dietary cholesterol — that is, if you have a lot in your diet — does not necessarily increase heart problems. My cholesterol is right where it should be, despite my egg habit, so I guess I’m living proof of this.
Hard-boileds are an excellent real-food protein bar replacement snack because they’re filling, have a ton of protein and other good nutrients, are low in calories, and are a whole food. One is usually enough, especially paired with some good, slow-burning whole grain chips (Beanitos bean chips are my favorites right now). Eggs also keep well, so you can pop one in your backpack in the morning and it will still be good the next day, or even the day after.
One egg — 76 calories, 6 grams protein
6 bagel chips — 60 calories, 1 gram protein (bagel chips are tasty but they’re a simple carb; use whole grain for more fiber and a slower-burning snack).
If you maintain a healthy diet, or at least are smart about your food choices, you’ll still see the pounds come off.
— Misty May-Treanor
A Word About Fat and Processed Foods
You’ll notice that I focus more on protein, calories, and fiber than I do on fat. That’s because fat doesn’t make you fat — it’s a healthy, necessary part of your diet. What really matters is that your every-day diet is balanced and based on whole foods and not processed foods.
I almost never eat fast food, and I stay away from Lean Cuisine and “healthy” products like that for the same reason — they’re ultra-processed material that will ultimately make you bloated, hungry, and fat. Protein bars and meal replacement bars have exactly the same problem. I try to base my diet on food that has 1 ingredient — a banana, tuna, eggs, spinach, an apple, natural peanut butter. I do eat bread, but very little — it’s a good source of carbs (energy), but it’s usually very processed. In the end, all of these real foods can, in one way or another, offer you an excellent protein bar alternative.
4. Nature’s Bakery Fig Bars
Man I love these little fig bars. I almost didn’t include them, since I just ranted and raved about processed food, and now here I’m talking about the only item on the list other than bread that’s actually processed. But I love these little guys. They’re super filling, and two will keep the hunger away for about three hours. Also they’re basically a treat, since there is some added sugar involved. But if you’re consistently eating real food alternatives to protein bars, the occasional Nature’s Bakery fig bar isn’t going to sink your ship.
180 calories, 4 grams protein, 4 grams fiber
5. A Banana and a Handful of Peanuts
This combo has been one of my go-to meal-replacements for years. A fraction of the cost of a protein bar or energy bar, this alternative is also filling, 100% whole foods, and is as convenient and easy to carry as any bar. I estimate that I save over a hundred dollars a year on energy bars simply by keeping some peanuts and a banana in my desk drawer at work.
Put it all together—the nutrition, the cost, and the convenience—and a simple banana and peanuts snack has made me think twice about spending money and risking my health on expensive, processed protein bars. Bananas have a lot of potassium, and they’re a source of a naturally-occurring carbohydrate known as a “resistant starch,” which means it takes a long time for your body to burn the calories, which keeps you full for a long time.
Medium-size banana — 90 calories
One ounce peanuts — 150 calories, 7 grams protein
A Word About “Veggies”…
First of all, I hate that word, “veggies.” I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because I think people who actually eat a lot of vegetables don’t call them that. Otherwise I’m all for eating your vegetables, and your fruits, and all your whole foods. Remember, if it has one ingredient, it’s probably good for you.
I eat meat but I also eat a lot of plants, in the form of spinach, peppers, tomatoes, onions, apples, oranges, and the occasional raw carrot. There aren’t a whole lot of them in this guide simply simply because I don’t think they work very well on their own as a replacement to those energy bar snacks. Vegetables are good for you, and you need to eat them, but for me they’re not all that filling, and don’t really scratch that I’M HUNGRY itch, or keep me satisfied for very long.
But by all means add vegetables to your real-food protein bar replacement choices! Good options are green or red pepper sticks, a small handful of blueberries, some spinach leaves, a small raw carrot, or some steamed asparagus (cold from the fridge with lemon and a little salt — outstanding!).
6. Beanitos Bean Chips and Salsa
I love chips — they’re one of my main weaknesses. A little while ago I discovered “bean chips,” which sound terrible but are actually amazing. These chips are made with bean flour instead of wheat or corn, so they have way more fiber and way more protein, and fewer simple carbs. They’re still a little on the processed side, but teamed up with a good amount of fresh salsa, you could do a whole lot worse.
Beanitos Bean Chips — 150 calories, 5 gram protein, 6 grams fiber (!)
1/2 cup fresh salsa — 35 calories
7. Cheese Slice and Turkey Slice Deli Roll-Up
This is one of my all-time favorite protein-bar replacements, mainly because this snack actually has a ton of protein in it. I often have one or two before bed. The protein and the fat keep me from waking up with hunger pangs, which can be a problem when you’re trying to cut calories and don’t eat enough during the day.
The main issue with this protein bar alternative is that it’s a little messy. I haven’t totally figured out how to roll it up and eat it without getting my hands all turkeyed-up. But this is a small price to pay for a high-quality fat and lean protein snack that will keep you full for quite a while. You might want to add a slice of good whole wheat bread for handling and quality carb purposes.
Ounce cheddar cheese — 110 calories, 7 grams protein
Two slices deli turkey — 60 calories, 9 grams protein
I still indulge in a glass of wine or chocolate – treats are mandatory. Without deviating from the day-to-day healthy diet once in a while, it wouldn’t be sustainable for me, and that’s what I wanted: an approach to eating to last my entire life.
— Alanis Morissette
8. One-Half Natural Peanut Butter Sandwich on Whole Wheat
Ah, the good old peanut butter sandwich. If the bread is a good, no-high-fructose whole grain variety, and if you only eat half, this little powerhouse will fill you up, provide a good shot of protein, and it won’t make you fat.
By the way, I never eat a whole sandwich of any variety. I always make a half, and I always find that it’s all I really want. Use a good amount of peanut butter, a whole tablespoon (not a little smear), and if you’re worried it won’t fill you up, chase it with a little glass of 2% milk (about 50 calories and a little more protein). Not only will you feel like you’re 12 again, you’ll provide your body with whole wheat, fiber, good fats, and protein.
One slice whole wheat bread — 100 calories, 4 grams protein
One tablespoon natural peanut butter — 100 calories, 4 grams protein
9. String Cheese and Whole Grain Chips
String cheese is awesome, and it’s not just for kids. It’s a filling little package of fat and protein, which means if you choose it as a protein bar replacement you won’t lose out on the protein. Combined with bean chips or a slice of whole wheat bread, it really hits the spot when you’re hungry and in a hurry. As a teacher, I am almost always on my feet or moving somewhere, and I can chomp on a stick of string cheese between classes. Plus the kids think it’s pretty funny to see their old, bald teacher walking down the hall working on a piece of string cheese.
One cheese stick — 100 calories, 5 grams protein
Bean chips or whole wheat bread — see above
A Word About Convenience…
Protein or energy bars do have one very appealing feature: they’re super portable and easy to stash and carry just about anywhere. Some of the real-food alternatives to these bars are not quite as portable as a real energy bar — but most of them are, and the ones that aren’t are easy to keep on hand and super quick to put together.
Another thought — I don’t know about you, but about half of my protein bar intake occurs at home. I sometimes grab an energy bar out of the cupboard without thinking, when a real-food replacement is within reach and nearly as easy to put together. If I stop to think for a moment about what I’m putting in my mouth — all of those processed materials and supplemental, lab-grown ingredients — I almost always put back the protein bar and turn to real food like an apple and some nuts, or a can of tuna and salad dressing, or a half-avocado and some bagel chips.
10. One Can of Tuna, Light Mayo, and Whole Wheat Crackers
I saved this for last because it’s my number-one real-food power bar replacement trick. The only drawback is that it does take a little preparation, which you can easily do in the kitchen before you leave for work or school. But seriously this combo has everything: it’s low in calories, it has a ton of protein, it’s amazingly filling (I often can’t even finish it), and really delicious. This snack also pairs really well with red pepper strips or some leaves of spinach.
The next time you feel those strong hunger signals, and you’re tempted to reach for a protein bar, try this real-food alternative and just see what happens. I guarantee your hunger will be gone, and you will have avoided a big old does of chemicals, sweeteners, and processed material.
One 3-ounce can of tuna — 70 calories, 16 grams protein
Tablespoon light mayo — 36 calories
6 bagel chips — 60 calories, 1 gram protein
How to Buy Tuna
Not all tuna is created equal, as you probably know. First of all, tuna in oil has about 100 more calories than tuna in water, and all of those calories are fat (though not necessarily bad fat). Second, chunk tuna is not the same as solid tuna. Solid tuna is the “white meat” of the fish, with a cleaner, flakier texture and less waste. It’s also a little more expensive, and has a better Omega 3 profile — heart-healthy fats — than the chunk variety.
I have found that solid tuna produces a bigger batch of tuna salad per can, since an awful lot of the chunk can contents turns out to be water that drains out. For this reason. I always buy Solid Albacore tuna in the can.
Pssst — Bonus Cheat Treat: Peanut M&M’s
Okay, I’m not made of steel. I’m pretty sure you’re not made of steel, either. We love sweets and candy, but at the same time we know we need to avoid a lot of sugary snacks. So here’s a little good news — a small handful of peanut M&M’s is actually not all that terrible health-wise, and as long as you don’t follow it up with several more handfuls, you’ll have yourself a treat that will not destroy your diet regime. A small handful (12 or so) is only 110 calories, has some fiber and a little protein, and only about 10 grams of sugar — about the same amount that’s in a half-cup of Coke.
I keep mine in the freezer. And I’m going to have some right now.