How to Choose a Healthy Snack Bar by Caitlin Self, MS, CNS, LDN

Protein bars, granola bars, and snack bars got you confused? Check out this handy guide to learn how to pick a healthy bar!

I’ve long been preaching the importance of eating real, whole foods. Things you can grow in your garden are always going to be better than things you can find in stores. However, we know that life doesn’t always provide you with the time or opportunity to eat farm-fresh foods 100% of the time, and this is where grocery stores, specifically food products, fill in the gaps. 

Many of my clients love keeping bars around when they need a little help with balancing their blood sugar or if they don’t have access to a real meal. Unfortunately, we can’t trust marketing labels like “healthy” or “all natural” since they’re not regulated, and the organic label might indicate a reduced level of pesticide exposure, but it doesn’t mean it’s a balanced option - you’ve all seen organic gummy bears, right? 

But - don’t fret - follow this quick & simple guide to select healthy bars wherever you are! I’m not including a huge list here; this post is meant to teach you how to read these labels for yourself. That’s important because companies change their formulas all the time and each brand has a variety of products and flavors with different profiles and ingredients. 

Disclaimer: this list is made as a “rule of thumb” guide, which doesn’t account for therapeutic diets, underweight conditions, gut complications, and more. So don’t be surprised if your practitioner (me!) alters a few things to suit your individual case. 

  1. Ingredients: The first thing to do is turn over the bar and look for the ingredients label. You’re looking for real food ingredients you recognize. The ingredients should be those you’d use in your own home, like nuts, seeds, and maybe some dried fruit. And it is important to TURN OVER the bar. Some of these sneaky marketers include an incomplete list of ingredients on the front (looking at you, RXBAR). 

You also want to look for a limited ingredients list; more ingredients means more processing. While 5 ingredients is ideal for a “real food” designation, that’s nearly impossible with bars, so I look for those with fewer than 10 ingredients. 

    1. Real, recognizable ingredients

    2. Fewer than 10 ingredients

  1. Macronutrient Ratios: Next, look over at the nutrition label. You want to make sure that you’ve got a somewhat balanced ratio of carbohydrates to fat and protein. Ingredients are important, but caramel can be made with one ingredient, but that one ingredient is sugar, and that is clearly NOT a balanced option. 

After checking for balanced macronutrients, it’s time to take a quick peek at the sugar. Ideally, you want fewer than 8 grams of total sugar per serving (the daily recommended maximum of sugar is 25 grams). I do not recommend parsing out total sugar, added sugar, and fiber when it comes to bars. Sugar is still sugar; stick to the lower sugar options.

    1. Protein + Fat > Carbohydrates 

    2. Sugar below 8 grams

Below we are going to dissect a few popular bars to see which ones meet the balanced real food criteria. 

Apple Pie LaraBar
Ingredients:
Dates, Almonds, Unsweetened apples, Walnuts, Raisins, Cinnamon. (6)
Macronutrients:
25g C
4g P
9g F
Sugar:
18g 

Apple Pie Lara Bar.jpg

Dark Chocolate Nuts & Sea Salt
Ingredients:
Almonds, Peanuts, Chicory root fiber, Honey, Palm kernel oil, Sugar, Glucose syrup, Rice flour, Unsweetened chocolate, Cocoa powder, Sea salt, Soy lecithin, Natural flavor, Cocoa butter. (14)
Macronutrients:
6g C
6g C
15g F
Sugar:
5g

KInd bar.jpg

Health Warrior Organic Dark Chocolate Pumpkin Seed Bars
Ingredients:
Organic Pumpkin Seeds, Organic Wildflower Honey, Organic Dutch Process Cocoa Powder, Organic Milled Quinoa, Cocoa Extra, Organic Vanilla Extract, Organic Coconut Oil, Sea Salt. (8)
Macronutrients:
11g C
8g P
13g F
Sugar:
6g

Health Warrior.jpg

Chocolate Sea Salt RX Bars
Ingredients:
Egg whites, Almonds, Cashews, Chocolate, Cocoa, Natural Flavors, Sea Salt
Macronutrients:
24g C
12g P
9g F
Sugar:
13g

RX Bar.jpeg

So what do you think? This LaraBar flavor has a great ingredients list, but it is heavy on carbohydrates and sugar. The macros are good in Kind bars, but they have funky (super processed) ingredients like soy lecithin, palm kernel oil, and glucose syrup, and the 14 ingredients lets you know it’s a little more processed than it should be. If you’re in love with LaraBars, be sure to pair them with additional fat and protein (hard boiled egg, meat stick, etc.), and as for the Kind Bars, they don’t make the cut for “real food,” but they’re probably a better choice than most other options at, say, a gas station rest stop. Moderation!

As for the RX bar, it is somewhat more balanced, but it is still too high in carbs and sugar, plus it has “natural flavors,” which could be anything derived from plant or animal matter. Also, the fact that they list some ingredients on the front and say “No B.S.” but then they have natural flavors listed on the official label means they’re not being fully transparent - and I don’t support that kind of trickery! 

The winner here is Health Warrior Organic Dark Chocolate Pumpkin Seed Bars. They have 8 ingredients, all of which are available to those of us not working in food science, and they have a great ratio of protein + fat : carbohydrates. Plus, the sugar content is under 8 grams. Win, win, win!

Now it’s your turn - what bars have you found that check all the boxes? Comment below or join the conversation on Facebook!

Q&A with our Nutritionist, Caitlin Self, MS, CNS, LDN

Meet Caitlin Self.png

Caitlin is the licensed nutritionist here at Charm City Integrative Health, and we did a little Q&A
with her to help our CCIH family get to know our newest addition!

What is your nutrition philosophy?
Keep it simple! Start with the simplest foods that your grandparents would recognize and tweak
from there based on how you feel. Nutrition is super individualized, so oats might be great for
one person, and awful for someone else. We say everyone needs more veggies, but
recommending a high-vegetable diet to someone with SIBO or Crohn’s can make their condition
worse, and a daily kale salad can be damaging to someone with thyroid issues. Every piece of
nutrition is individualized. The basic tenets for most of us are pretty generic: drink water, eat real
food, limit sugar (in all forms), and limit toxic exposure.

What is your least favorite nutrition myth?
Fat makes you fat. I hate this myth! Fat is super important for brain health - and so many of my
clients, especially women, are dealing with moodiness, anxiety, and depression. Sure, the root
cause can be lots of things, but oftentimes we can correct some of this with appropriate levels of
healthy fats, like avocado, cold-pressed olive oil, and grass-fed animal fat.

What’s the biggest nutrition mistake you see?
Too much, too soon. It’s easy to get caught up in all the things that we can “do better” that we
forget to focus on the one or two things we can do right now. Starting small is super important
for long-term behavioral change. Most of my clients get started with this great can-do attitude,
reporting they’re 100% committed to change, and then they try to implement half a dozen
interventions all at once, which is a true recipe for failure. When you’re re-learning a skill or
habit, you don’t start off with a decathlon of 10 events, you start with a 5K and you build from
there.

What brought you into nutrition?
A lot of triggers and exposures throughout my life led me here - in high school, I noticed how
much faster I ran in cross country when I didn’t have chocolate chip granola bars for lunch, and I
learned how sugar can slow the recovery from injuries during a sports nutrition talk in high
school. Since then I’ve had my share of health issues, and when I started digging into solutions,
nutrition was always a major component. I started a food blog in 2013, and then eventually
decided to dive head first into nutrition with the Master’s program at MUIH. And I haven’t
stopped since!

What does Integrative Health mean to you?
It means treating the whole human with a variety of modalities - not just a single approach. We
are so individual, made up of both our genetics and our experiences, and integrative health
acknowledges this by providing a number of different approaches for the same conditions.

For example, some of us can reduce joint inflammation by healing the gut (nutrition), adjusting
energy meridians (acupuncture), or correcting skeletal imbalances (nervous system
manipulation). It’s the same diagnosis, but with several different root causes and treatment
options. And here at CCIH, we have supporting treatments like cryotherapy to treat systemic or
idiopathic inflammation. It’s a great multifaceted approach. The same is true for other chronic
conditions, such as endometriosis, SIBO, or chronic fatigue; nutrition is an important spoke on
the wellness wheel, but we should take advantage of all the approaches available to us to
improve the health and wellbeing of our clients.

What gets you up in the morning?
Client work! A lot of practitioners get bored with paperwork or bogged down with client
communications, but I love it! When I see emails from my clients, I get so excited that they’re
being proactive and taking their health seriously, and I don’t mind providing extra support. That,
and warm weather - it’s a lot harder for me to get out of bed when I know it’s cold outside!