A recent study shows that eating a fast food meal after you work out is just as good for muscle-building as eating a protein bar. Of course it'd be nice to think that McDonald's has switched its focus from greasy burgers to health supplements, but alas, that is not the case. Rather, sports supplements may not be all they're cracked up (or marketed) to be.
As published in the “International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism,” the study examined how a post-workout meal affects a man's muscle glycogen recovery. The researchers had 11 men perform an intense 90-minute workout, followed by a meal right after the workout, and then another meal two hours later. In each trial, the men's meals were either sport supplements or fast food. The fast food meals consisted of hotcakes, hashbrowns and orange juice right after the workout (amounting to 2720 calories) and a hamburger, coke and fries two hours after the workout (amounting to 2845 calories). The sport supplement meals, on the other hand, consisted of Gatorade, Kit's Organic PB and Clif Shot Bloks right after the workout (2775 calories) and Cytomax, Power Bar Recovery, PBCC and Power Bar Energy Chews two hours later (2678 calories). Tests measuring muscle growth, blood lipids and glucose showed that there was no difference between the fast food and sport supplement trials. In addition, participants noted the same level of discomfort or sickness following the meals.
This study seemingly backs up a 2009 study published in the “Journal of The International Society of Sports Nutrition,” in which the workout routines of 28 overweight or exercise-averse men were analyzed over the course of 12 weeks, along with their consumption of soy or whey protein. Results showed that neither type of protein was more effective for building muscle, and in fact there were no discernible differences between those 28 men and a third group which was given no added protein to their diet.
So if protein bars are essentially just as useful as fast food when it comes to post-workout nutrition, what is all the hype about? Naturally, there's the protein factor. But all protein is not synonymous with health. In fact, many unhealthy products use the guise of “high-protein” labels to sell their highly processed, sugary content. For instance, the protein in many bars comes from soy protein isolate, which is made from processed soybeans. While natural soybeans can be a wonderful source of protein, processed soy is a whole other story. The processing of soybeans at high temperatures denatures the proteins, which essentially results in a low quality form of protein. In fact, most soybean meal (which is what's used to make soy protein isolate) is used as livestock feed in the U.S.
By focusing on the large amount of protein, no matter the form, these bars distract the consumer from other unhealthy ingredients. For instance, an Apricot Clif Bar contains 23g of sugar, which comes in just under the total daily amount of sugar recommended by the World Health Organization – 25g. Not to mention that the bar's main source of protein is, of course, soy protein isolate. So when big companies like Nestle (producers of PowerBar) and Coca-Cola (Odwalla) dish out protein products, what they're often selling to you is highly processed, refined ingredients masked with large amounts of vitamins and protein isolate.
But, we need protein right? Yes, we do. But not as much as we think. In fact, as David Levitsky, a professor of nutritional science at Cornell University, told the Atlantic, the protein craze has led to Americans consuming “far more protein than they need.” The CDC has also stated as such, and the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that the average person eats almost twice the amount of protein recommended daily. Considering that protein, and protein bars, can often be high in saturated fat, excess protein can lead to health problems and weight gain. The protein needs of power and endurance athletes are also not as great as many think, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states, and athletes often don't need supplements to meet those needs.
So protein bars are just processed candy bars with a whole lot of protein in them – what's the big deal? Well, that fact alone is not the problem. The problem is how these bars are marketed. For instance, grocery stores often put these items along the perimeter of the store, which in terms of store psychology links them in the consumer's mind to health and freshness. This is called the “perimeter rule,” in which healthy, fresh foods are often displayed in well-lit areas around the outer perimeter of the store to entice customers. Even though that rule has been dead for some time now, many consumers still believe it – a fact which grocery stores use to encourage impulse purchases. You'll also find protein bars nestled into the nutrition or health section next to medicine, band-aids, and toothpaste, instead of perhaps where some really belong – in the candy aisle.
The packaging of the bars themselves also specifically target health-conscious consumers, marketing the products as a healthful snack or meal supplement. For instance, Clif Bars depict a rock-climbing scene on their wrappers, with the tag-line “Nutrition for Sustained Energy” displayed underneath, and their “organic rolled oats” highlighted above. Odwalla's Super Protein bar displays natural ingredients such as nuts, raisins, and wheat on their label, along with the words “real fruit & whole cereal grains.” Oh yeah, and there's a dumbbell at the bottom just for good measure. And while the front of the packaging paints a pretty picture, it isn't until you flip over to the nutritional label that you get the truth. Each bar contains 17g of sugar and the defining ingredient is soy protein isolate.
Now, all protein bars are not the same, and it helps to know what you're looking for on the nutrition label. For starters, look for protein bars with five or less ingredients (especially whole food ingredients). Then, take a gander at the sugar content – a healthy protein bar will ideally have 8-10g of sugar or less (which already adds up to around one-third of your daily recommended intake). You also want to look out for what kind of sugar is in the bar. Some of the common artificial sweeteners are: sucralose (used in Quest bars), aspartame, neotame, saccharin and acesulfame K (also known as acesulfame potassium).
And let's not forget about all that protein. If soy protein isolate is the only, or main form of protein in the bar, it may be time to search out an alternative option.
The fact remains that protein bars are a convenient way to get the calories you need post-workout, since at that time your body will take pretty much any type of food to help build muscle. But they should not be used as a consistent replacement for meals or other healthier snacks. So if you're looking for a quick boost throughout the day, grab a more natural form of protein – such as hard-boiled eggs, mixed nuts, edamame, hummus, or cheese. And make sure to pair these proteins with other healthy fats and carbs, too.
Sources: Pacific Standard Magazine, Human Kinetics (Fast Food-Sports Supplement Study), The New York Times, Authority Nutrition, CBS News, The Atlantic, CDC, Huffington Post, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Bon Appetit, The Sugar Association