Stop what you’re doing and put down that Quest Bar!
Okay, kidding. But if you are someone who thinks eating protein calories doesn’t count because it’s just adding to muscle growth (no judgement! this used to be me, too!), it’s time to keep reading…
I’m going to call out Quest Bars in particular thanks to their newest product line, their “Hero Bars.” Much like their traditional bar, these are basically desserts marketed as health foods, and I’m here to say: they’re not health foods.
These new Hero Bars, along with their cereal bars, have a new sugar substitute that’s on the market: Allulose. This is supposed to be “exactly like sugar,” but with 1/10th of the calories. Sounds great, right? Well…this is a brand new sweetener, which should be a red flag right there. The more research that comes out on processed low-cal or calorie-free sweeteners, the worse they look in the healthsphere. They are shown to disrupt the gut microbiome; they make your brain think it’s getting a true sweetener, which can affect metabolism and make you crave more sweets; and the have been shown in studies to cause more weight gain than pure, calorie-dense sweeteners.
I haven’t read much on this because it is so new, but let me just start with a disclaimer to say be wary of any artificial sweeteners, since over time, research tends to come out with more and more negative effects from them. And as I will always tout, just eat real foods!
And a quick preface on IIFYM
To all my macro-counters out there: I’ve been there. I tried the “If It Fits Your Macros” (“IIFYM”) protocol for a while. Protein powders, chicken breast, beef jerky and of course, protein bars, were the staples in my diet. I counted my macronutrients and protein was the overly-dominating ratio. Hitting the right grams for protein was my main accomplishment for the day: the less fats and carbohydrates, the better.
This diet fad, however, led me to a very poor relationship with food. Despite its message being “you can eat whatever you want as long as you hit the right macros” – it still was very restrictive. I was weighing my food constantly, and I can remember removing single blueberries from bowls of yogurt, nixing vegetables from meals, and cutting out egg yolks to stay under my carbohydrates and fats for the day. I was removing VEGETABLES to lose weight!
IIFYM leads you to believe that if you hit a certain target of protein, carbs, and fat, you can eat whatever you want. However, I felt it was really a diet of restriction. It still restricts your calories. I was always on the quest for the low-calorie, high-protein options, whether they were truly good for me or not. Following this diet led me down the road of way too much processed foods, leading to inflammation, poor gut health, and too many excuses to eat junk that was not serving my body.
Let me back up for a second and quickly explain macronutrients to anyone who might not yet know what that means. Macronutrients are the essential nutrients your body needs to function. They are also the only nutrients that have calories.
“Macros” are proteins, carbs, and fats (and one that’s sometimes counted as a “non-essential” macro because it has calories: alcohol! 🍺) Here’s the breakdown calorically:
- 1g of fat = 9cal
- 1g protein = 4cal
- 1g carbs = 4cal
- 1g alcohol = 7cal
So what does all this mean? …Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? That you should drink alcohol instead of eating fat #becauselowercalories!
Kidding. It really doesn’t inherently “mean” anything. Having this knowledge is really just beneficial if you are looking to better understand the types of foods you are eating and how they serve your body.
I believe it’s important if you’re focusing on nutrition to know, approximately, what your daily macronutrient ratios and caloric needs are. It can be helpful to track your foods in the short-term to understand the ratios of the foods you eat regularly in your diet, and perhaps tweak those ratios of protein, carbohydrates, and fats to know what works best for your diet and your body.
Quick lesson over, and I’m sure more to come from me on other macronutrients 🙂
…And on to the protein problem.
Have you noticed that nearly EVERYTHING on the shelves has added protein or advertises how many grams of protein are in it? Greek yogurt, drinks, spreads, bars, cereal, snacks – all adding protein. I’m surprised they haven’t added protein to toothpaste, yet…
But why? Because it’s healthy? No, protein is not inherently a “health” food. So why is protein viewed this way? If you ask me? It’s just a great marketing campaign.
A big contribution to this belief is the marketing initiatives by the food and fitness industries. This push for protein probably came about because studies have shown that protein takes longer to break down than other macronutrients, which makes you “feel fuller longer”. So now, people will buy things that have more protein because they think it will keep them fuller longer. So what does the food industry do to make money? Make it prominent on their labels and engineer their foods to have the newest fad.
And just like “low-fat” and “low-sodium” products were the new fad for a time (both low-fat and low-sodium diets have been proven to be unhealthy, by the way), “high-protein” labels are just a new way to sell products.
Also, as the fitness culture grew, so did a lot of engineered foods that coincided with that growth. When you exercise more, you need more protein to build your muscles. So the industry turned to this one macronutrient to idolize. They market these products to make you think that eating protein can’t lead to weight gain and only leads to muscle gain. So, if a company makes you think you need a protein shake before, during, and after every workout, they’re profiting.
Meanwhile, so many of these low-calorie protein products are still glorified candy bars, and society thinks that that’s okay because of the protein content. But not all calories are created equally. Not all protein is created equally. Other ingredients in these products are chemicals and additives that are destroying our guts and making us crave more sweets at the end of the day, leading dieters to rely on willpower and more protein to fuel their weight loss goals.
The Protein Balance
Somewhat recently, I’ve switched over to whole milk yogurt (sorry Chobani). Sometimes quinoa or beans are my source of protein at a meal. “Whole eggs or no eggs” is my new motto.
Why? Because you need a mix of nutrients at every meal to feel satisfied. For protein specifically: whole chickens, grass-fed beef, well-sourced meats and eggs – these are all nutrient-dense foods that you don’t have to question. So if you eat a well-balanced diet and have an adequate amount of calories for your needs, all of the protein supplements and snacks probably aren’t necessary.
So to be clear, I’m not advising anyone to go “low-protein” or be a vegetarian. And everyone has a different ideal macro ratio for themselves, which can change on any given day. And yes, sometimes, a protein bar can be a great addition to your diet to meet your protein needs.
My thoughts on protein
I don’t know about you, but I have definitely downed a protein shake and still felt HANGRY. And anytime I’ve eaten just the egg whites, it’s been a sad, flavorless disappointment. And, TMI, but my gut was never quite pleased when my “meals” were nearly pure protein.
Don’t get me wrong – protein is essential. Protein is great for you. I eat plenty of it (and yes, I do eat Quest bars occasionally still, despite this blog post’s preface). There are plenty of benefits: it is an essential nutrient, it builds your muscles, and it does help to keep you full. And there can be serious detriments if you don’t get enough in your diet.
But when it comes to protein supplements and bars, I am cautious of how much of those I eat. I realize these are just glorified desserts that can help me get additional protein for the day and don’t really have many other health benefits otherwise.
And I also realize that protein is not a limitless macronutrient – there are detriments to having more than your body needs. You can only absorb so much at one time so more is not always better (~0.6-0.8g per pound for athletes, even less for the non-active population). If you have more than that, protein converts into carbohydrate in high quantities; and at extreme quantities, it literally becomes toxic to you.
So my final word is: just keep these thoughts in mind the next time you’re in the grocery store, reach for a snack and think a protein bar is your best bet. Check out the other nutrients on the label – how much fat, carbohydrate, sugar, fiber, etc. is in it? What sweeteners have been added? What are the ingredients? And more importantly, is more protein what your body needs?
And just know that although the mainstream diet culture claims it will solve all of your dieting problems, protein is not a miracle macro.