Eating protein bars makes me feel great. It’s not that I actually notice better performance or a spring in my step when I eat one, but according to their wrappers, these things are designed for athletes. So I think to myself, “hey! I work out! I must be an athlete! I should eat a protein bar, because that’s what athletes eat.” And of course it doesn’t bother me that the thing costs more than if I had just bought, you know, some chicken. Athletes like me have to pay a premium to be fit, beautiful, and happy.
Or maybe I just like eating candy bars, and I don’t want to feel guilty about it.
Actually, I think that that’s the real reason why people are willing to pay exorbitant amounts of money for these purportedly protein-packed bars. I like candy bars too. And the good news I discovered when researching how to make my own for cheap is it’s incredibly easy to make a healthy and tasty protein bar for very little money at home. Here’s how.
Why Protein Bars?
Let’s pretend for a minute that we want to eat protein bars for their nutritional content and not because they taste (sorta) like candy. To do that, we need to be able to evaluate our bars based on their… nutritional content. But people eat for all kinds of reasons. Here are some of the reasons I brainstormed might be good times to down a protein brick.
- Meal or Snack Replacement
- Energy Supplement
- Pre-workout Nutrition
- During-workout Nutrition
- Post-workout Nutrition.
So by my count… we’ll need to develop five different types of homemade protein bars with specialized nutrition profiles. Is that what you counted too? Well, if you scroll to the end of this post (cheater), you’ll find just one recipe. What’s going on here?
When I sat down to design ideal protein bars for all these different situations, I realized that the perfect thing to eat often wasn’t a protein bar at all. Take a look at AskMen.com’s list of different protein and energy bars. Meal or snack replacements, by definition, should as closely mirror as closely as possible what you would normally eat for a meal or snack. I make a habit of eating whole foods whenever possible, so bars filled with things like protein powders and palm kernel oil would not make a good meal replacement for me. If you’re looking for a meal replacement on the go, it’s much easier and cheaper to eat things like beef jerky, trail mix, and fruit. Vegetables pose more of a challenge. Look for dehydrated vegetables on sale or make your own. A protein bar is not going to help you get your servings of vegetables anyway.
Protein bars are not energy bars. Bars like Clif bars, larabars, and power bars were all originally designed as energy bars, not protein bars. You should only be eating an energy bar if your normal meals are failing to give you enough energy to do whatever activity it is you are attempting. It’s important to eat high-quality proteins (proteins containing all or most essential amino acids) during normal meals. Protein is broken down into amino acids in the small intestine, where it then passes into the blood and onto bodily tissues. Amino acids give your muscles their necessary energy by facilitating the conversion of glucose into energy. More information is available here.
But you shouldn’t be counting on protein as an energy source. Using protein as an energy source is called ketogenesis and occurs only in the malnourished or people using the method as a kind of fat-loss diet. If you need an energy bar, buy one that has a combination of simple and complex carbohydrates (have you read our primer on sugar yet?) that will convert at a desired rate into glucose, which will in turn power your muscles.
Although I thought about the phases of exercise nutrition as discreet entities, I found out in my research that pre-, during-, and post- workout nutrition require a unified approach. Athletes looking to maintain high levels of output for a long duration (think 60-90 minutes or more) will need to eat a decently sized meal with plenty of complex carbohydrates hours before exercise. This ensures the body has enough glucose to fuel the oxidative and glycolytic conversion of glucose into usable energy. For the rest of us, pre-, during-, and post-workout nutrition become one animal because post-workout nutrition begins before you lift a finger.
Post-workout nutrition is pretty well understood at this point. Simple carbohydrates replenish glycogen stores and stimulate insulin production. Protein is added to the mix; insulin helps to store that protein in muscle. Ratios of anywhere from about 3:1 to 5:1 are cited as ideal for the carb-to-protein blend. A liquid meal speeds digestion. I didn’t find much consensus on an ideal calorie count for a post-workout meal. Instead, I will advise the total calories should be close to your normal between-meals snack size, given your body weight and activity.
Here’s where the timing of your post-workout meal gets weird: it takes a long time for the body to digest and absorb protein, even in powdered form. That’s why the low-carb diet folks advocates high-protein diets in the first place – because slow absorption means less insulin spike =less fat storage. We’re talking somewhere around 10g of protein per hour. So if you’re planning to do a 30 minute workout and want those awesome amino acids to be available the moment you’re done breaking a sweat? You should have started eating an hour ago. Here’s the most geeky but easy to understand article I could find explaining this concept.
Designing the Perfect Post-workout Protein Bar
After all that research, designing my perfect post-workout protein bar was comparatively a cinch!
- Use whole food wherever possible
- easy to make
- taste awesome
- 300 calories
- 3:1 ratio of carbs to protein
- stay in bar form.
My solution? A poor mans’s protein-pumped version of a larabar.
Larabar’s are sweetened and held together with dates. Other whole ingredients, like dried fruit, nuts, and chocolate are added for flavor. The whole thing is blended and packaged. Basically, I did that.
Recipe: Makes 2 Bars
Ingredients: 36g Chocolate Whey Protein, 110 grams dried sweetened dates*, 20g almonds.
Whey protein isn’t what I’d consider whole food, but my next best options were egg whites, soy protein, and… meat. So I compromised.
*couldn’t find unsweet.
Step 1: Blend.
Step 2: Drizzle in about 1 oz of water, a little at a time, until batter just comes together.
Step 3: Form into bars and refrigerate or freeze until ready to eat.
Nutritional Content: 310 Calories, 47.6g Carbohydrates (37.1g sugar 5.5g fiber), 16.0g Protein, 5g Fat
These bars were pretty awesome for a first try, but dates make them a pretty expensive proposition. Going off amazon.com prices, each bar costs $0.65 in dates, $0.15 in almonds, and $0.36 in protein powder = $1.17/bar. If only I could replace the dates with something cheaper…
Raisins are Cheaper than Dates
Raisins are cheap. So I made my bars again with raisins. Worked like a charm.
The only difference? Use 0.5 oz of water instead of 1 oz. These guys are a little bit more moist than dates, I guess.
The raisins only cost $0.35/bar, bringing the total price to just $0.87/bar!
Nutritional Content: 296.5 Calories, 47.6g Carbohydrates (33g sugar 1.3g fiber), 16.0g Protein, 5g Fat
Store these babies in the fridge or freezer until ready to eat, as the whey protein will spoil quickly once hydrated. Start taking nibbles of it as you start your workout, then finish it as soon as possible once your workout is complete. Make sure you drink plenty of water (shoot for at least 8oz, 16oz is better) to aid absorption.
More to come
I’ve messed around some more with protein bars since I first started this post. I would like to make the bars less sticky, less wet in general, and maybe add a chocolate coating. I’d like to look at how the hydration of whey protein works, and how/why raisins are able to trap moisture. Raisins seem to trap water inside them like a gel, but is it pectin, sugar, or fiber at work? If you have any ideas, please comment!