You Should Still Have Some Real Food If You’re Planning To Swap Your Lunch Or Dinner For A Protein Bar

Sometimes chaotic schedules can leave you with no time to actually sit down and eat. A meal replacement bar can really come in handy at these times, but you’ll want to pick one really carefully, especially if you’re trying to lose weight—some may have more calories than you want. The best meal replacement bars should have balanced nutrients and minimal added sugars.

A meal replacement bar is a protein bar with a little more nutrition meant to be able to take the place of a meal, says Audra Wilson, RD, a bariatric dietitian at the Northwestern Medicine Metabolic Health and Surgical Weight Loss Center at Delnor Hospital. And one typically comes with 200 to 400 calories.

Given the name, you may think you can just grab one and call it a meal. But TBH, they’re not meant to be consumed as a meal on its own. “The vast majority of bars on the market do not contain enough calories to replace an entire meal, so they will need to be paired with other foods—for instance, yogurt and a piece of fruit,” says Amy Gorin, RDN, an inclusive plant-based dietitian and the owner of Master the Media in Stamford, Connecticut.

Are meal replacement bars good for weight loss?

Having the occasional bar on the go can stop you from turning down the drive-through lane for heavy or unhealthy choices when you’re hungry, says Gorin, emphasizing that you definitely cannot subsist on these bars alone. If you plan on replacing a meal with one, make sure to also consume other foods along with it to amp up the calorie count.

May Zhu, RD, the founder of Nutrition Happens, agrees and points out that eating real food is still the best way to get all your nutrients. While meal replacement bars offer an equivalent number of calories, they do not provide the vitamins and minerals you’d get from veggies, meat, and grains. “But if bars are easier for you to sustain a calorie intake that aligns with your weight loss goals, swapping it out for one meal a day could potentially help achieve that goal as long as your other meals are also in line with those goals,” she says.

You should use these bars sparingly, though—a few times a week at most. “Relying too much on meal replacement bars might mean that you are missing out on several essential vitamins and minerals that are found in fruits and vegetables,” says Zhu. Her advice is to check the label and see which macros are missing, then supplement with an item that can fill that gap. For example, if your bar is lower in fiber, try pairing it with an extra piece of fiber-rich fruit. Zhu adds that it’s fine to sub a meal with a bar once in a while if you are eating a balanced diet at other times.

Some meal replacement bars have a lot of fat and sugar, so save them for when you absolutely need one. Wilson says she recommend these bars only when you’re debating between skipping a meal and eating something.

How do you choose a meal replacement bar?

“Many bars will be within a similar calorie range, but analyzing the nutrition facts allows you to see where the calories are coming from,” says Wilson. “Protein should be between 10 to 15 grams for a filling effect. Saturated fat should not exceed 20 percent in the percent daily value column, and fat should stay around 10 grams or less. If the bar has whole ingredients, it should contain at least three grams of fiber. The bar may be high in carbs or sugar, but this should come from whole fruits like dates, not added sugars like honey or sucrose.” So look for hidden sugar by checking for phrases like “dried cane juice,” “honey,” or “raw sugar,” as all of these are considered sugar.

Finally, search for whole foods in the ingredient list. “The more the better,” Wilson says. “Some bars will have added nutrients, so if you see ingredients like citric acid, know that these may be a nutritional add-on.”

Even knowing what the ideal criteria are, picking a meal replacement bar can still be tricky, especially if you have certain dietary restrictions or preferences. Here are the best meal replacement bars for every need, according to RDs.

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