Mary Ellen Phipps

Mary Ellen Phipps

Mary Ellen Phipps, the founder of Milk & Honey Nutrition, is a diabetes dietitian (Registered Dietitian Nutritionist) renowned for combining her knowledge of diabetes and culinary expertise into easy-to-follow recipes and articles!

5 Things to Look for in a Healthy Snack Bar

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Picking out a healthy snack bar can be confusing, so keep reading for 5 things to look for next time you’re in the grocery store. 

Whether it’s a protein bar, granola bar, or energy bar, it seems like every week there’s a new healthy snack bar option to choose from at the grocery store.  So, it’s important to understand what to look for in order to pick out a good snack bar. 

What should you look for in a healthy snack bar?

They’re 5 essential qualities I always recommend to my clients when looking for a snack bar. Keep these handy for your next grocery trip! 

  1. Quality ingredients 
  2. Less added sugar 
  3. Protein 
  4. Fiber
  5. Fat

Snack bars (protein bars, energy bars, granola bars, etc.) can be a great healthy (and quick!) on the go option to get you from one meal to the next, or even as part of a meal like breakfast or lunch. But, you do have to be careful. 

Many of the so-called “healthy snack bars” out there are just a glorified candy bar. If you feel like you’ve spent far too many minutes during a grocery run trying to decide which bars to pick for you and your family, you’re definitely not alone.

Snacking basics to understand what makes a healthy snack bar 

There are many reasons we eat snacks, but the primary reason is we need something to get us from one meal to the next without starving and feeling tired. Snacks keep us full (or at least keep our stomachs from growling) and energized. But how do they do that?

To really understand that, we need to do a brief review of our MACRO nutrients: carbs, protein, and fat.

These three things are the only things that provide calories to our bodies. (The exception to that is alcohol, which also provides calories, but isn’t considered a nutrient.) They each serve different functions in our bodies and are absorbed at different speeds. 

Carbohydrates are processed the quickest. This means they leave our stomachs and get absorbed in our intestines faster than protein and fat do. Carbohydrates give us quick energy. 

Protein and fat take a little longer to digest, with fat taking the longest. Protein and fat, help keep us energized over longer periods of time. This is why an apple by itself (mainly carbs) only keeps you full for an hour, but an apple with peanut butter (protein and fat) could keep you full for 2-3 hours.

So, whenever I’m working with clients, I always give them my “perfect snack” formula…

Carbs + protein/fat = sustained energy and fullness

 One of the most frequently asked questions is what to look for in a healthy snack bar. I recommend looking for quality ingredients, less added sugar, protein, fiber, and fat. Keep reading for a breakdown of each of these. 

Quality ingredients

Take a quick look over the ingredient list. Do you recognize most of the ingredients? If not, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. There are plenty of natural ingredients that you may not be familiar with, but that are a-ok to eat. 

Another thing to keep in mind is the number of ingredients. A long ingredient list is not a bad thing. I am more concerned about the type and quality of ingredients, not how many there are.

One example of an ingredient you probably aren’t familiar with but is totally ok to consume is chicory root fiber (also called inulin). It comes from the roots of, you guessed it, chicory plants… but you may be more familiar with the leafy green part of that plant otherwise known as endive. 

Chicory root fiber acts as a soluble pre-biotic fiber. This means it gives the existing bacteria in our gut lots of fuel. (Read more about that here.) One thing to be careful of though, is many bars (or similar type products) that contain inulin or chicory root fiber also have a lot of added sugar…

Less added sugar

If you’ve read any other articles on my blog, you know I’m big on minimizing added sugar when needed. It’s not something to be feared by any means, but it is something to be aware of and make note of. Read more of my thoughts on added sugar here

Grams of sugar

The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend getting no more than 10% of your calories from added sugar. For the average person that comes out to about no more than 150-200 calories/day from added sugar… but ideally, I believe we should strive for less than that.

The new requirements from the US Food & Drug Administration make spotting added sugars even easier. As of January 1, 2020, all food manufacturers had to list added sugar on their nutrition facts labels.

Protein

I think there’s a common misconception that all “healthy snack bars” are protein bars, but that’s not the case. And it doesn’t have to be. If you are using a bar as a snack or just a component of a meal, there’s usually no need for a higher protein option. Though keep in mind, protein does keep you fuller for longer

But, if you are looking for a bar to be a meal replacement, then yes, I would recommend looking for a bar with 8g or more of protein. For these higher protein bars, ideally the protein is coming from a naturally occurring source like nuts or seeds, however, sometimes companies will use quality plant-based protein powders like brown rice protein and pea protein. 

Many bars also contain whey protein. (Disclaimer: I’m generally not a fan of regular consumption of whey protein because it upsets my stomach, however, if it does not bother you, it is fine to consume in moderate amounts.)

Fiber

We already talked about fiber briefly above, but hopefully the bar you choose gives you a few grams or more of fiber. Fiber is not only good for our gut health, but it also is a great appetite regulator and along with fat and protein will keep you fuller longer. If the primary protein source for a bar is from nuts or seeds as I mentioned above, fiber will likely be higher as well.

Fat 

Fat is not the enemy. Don’t fear fat. Fat is your friend. You get the idea. 🙂 When it comes to a snack, and in this case, a healthy snack bar… “healthy” does not mean low fat. Fat is the most natural appetite regulator out there. It keeps us fuller for longer and keeps cravings and mood swings at bay. 

A low-fat granola bar or energy bar is likely loaded up with added sugar and other processed ingredients. Look for bars with nuts or seeds as the main ingredients.

Healthy fats

As previously mentioned, nuts and seeds are a few examples of healthy fats that should be listed as the main ingredients. These ingredients are a good source of fiber, which are also helpful for balancing blood sugars.

Nut butter 

Nut butters fall into the healthy fat category. Peanut butter, almond butter, and cashew butter are a few you may find as an ingredient. 

Dark chocolate

Dark chocolate in moderation, can be an excellent ingredient in the ideal snack bar.  Not only does dark chocolate taste delicious but it also contains antioxidants that can be provide heart protecting benefits and reduce may insulin resistance. 


And if you’re looking for more help finding healthy snacks, make sure to check out these posts as well:

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One Response

  1. I could not agree more. It has been a hassle to pick out the healthiest bars from so many similar looking bars. Thank you for sharing these, definitely going to look at the ingredients more closely.

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