Class ends at 12:30, you’ve got a club meeting at 1:00, and in between you’re somehow supposed to be finishing that essay due at 1:30. You hear your stomach rumble, but some days there just isn’t time for the dining hall. Luckily, you don’t have to starve. As you dart through campus, you reach into your bag, peel open the wrapper, and bite into a delectable bite of god-knows-what drenched in a mysterious “yogurt coating”. Thank god for your handy meal replacement bar… right?
Meal replacement bars from brands like Special K, Slim Fast, Balance, Odwalla, and Luna might seem like a convenient way to get your nutrients. Most advertise high doses of protein and carbohydrates that will fill you up and keep you that way all the way until your next meal. And with fun-sounding flavors like chocolate nut brownie or strawberry vanilla, who can resist? But do these bars fulfill their promises? HC checked in with nutritionists Katie Clark and Kellie Naudeau to find out.
Is This Really A Meal?
So can a meal replacement bar really replace a meal? It depends on whom you ask. Katie Clark believes that when used for no more than one meal per day, meal replacement bars are acceptable substitutes for real meals. “Meal replacement bars – when used in moderation – can be a valuable part of a well balanced diet,” she says. “They are convenient, can be fortified with various nutrients and help with weight management as the amount of calories in a bar is always well documented on the food label – whereas it can sometimes be difficult to determine how many calories are in a traditional meal.”
Is all this really in that?
However, Kellie Naudeau takes a more skeptical view. “I do not believe that meal replacement bars are an acceptable replacement for an actual meal,” she says. “If you create a meal for yourself that is balanced in nutrients, you can get a lot more for your calories. For example: you can have a salad with nuts, veggies, a low calorie dressing with fish or chicken on it for a reasonable amount of calories (<500) while also being satisfied. A meal replacement bar does not necessarily satisfy your hunger and most have a high amount of calories/fat. You will be missing out on nutrients that can be easily retained by eating a piece of fruit, veggies or other items from the food guide pyramid. ”
Instead of a meal replacement bar, she suggests choosing a healthy snack to tide you over until you can eat a full meal. “Rather than a meal replacement, a better option would be a ‘snack bar’ (such as Special K breakfast bars, Fiber One bars, Nature Valley Bars),” she says (yup! We’re not against all bars!). “This way it will help satisfy hunger and tide you over until you are able to eat an actual meal.”
In fact, she recommends that if you find it difficult to fit three full meals into your schedule, you should eat six smaller meals throughout the day. This will help you stay full without resorting to something like a meal bar.
Not All Meal Bars Are Created Equal
Both Clark and Nadeau agree that certain meal bars are much more meal-like than others. Nadeau recommends looking for ones with 150-250 calories, have at least 5 grams of fiber, and less than 10 grams of sugar. The high fiber will keep you full until your next meal.
Clark warns against ones with hydrogenated oils or saturated fats. And skip ones that make bogus-sounding muscle building or weight loss claims. “It’s a very simple fact that at some point in time a person will become tired of meal replacement bars and go back to a regular diet,” she explains. “When you make changes such as that it disturbs your body's metabolism and puts you at risk of having a slower metabolism.”
And whatever you choose, “Keep in mind that – if it looks like a cookie and tastes like a cookie – it probably is a cookie!” says Nadeau.
Make sure you’re not eating these as your “meals”!
Pick It Or Skip It?
HC looked at the stats and facts on some of popular meal bars and taste-tested them to help you figure out which to pick and which to skip.
Slim Fast Optima Oatmeal Raisin
Calories: 220, 45 from fat
Fat: 5 grams, 3.5 grams saturated fat and 0 grams trans fat
Fiber: 1 gram
Protein: 8 grams
Sugar: 12 grams
Taste Test: Edible
Skip it or pick it? Skip it. It’s got extra sugar and not enough fiber or protein to keep you full.
Special K Protein Chocolate Peanut Butter
Calories: 180, 50 from fat
Fat: 6 grams fat, 3.5 grams saturated fat and 0 grams trans fat
Fiber: 5 grams
Protein: 10 grams
Sugar 15 grams
Taste Test: Enjoyable
Skip it or pick it? Ok, so it’s HIGH in sugar. But the protein and fiber should at least keep you full. Don’t make it your first choice, but grab it in a bind.
Zone Perfect Strawberry Yogurt
Calories: 200, 50 from fat
Fat: 6 grams, 4 grams saturated fat and 0 grams trans fat
Fiber: 3 grams
Protein: 14 grams
Sugar: 15 grams
Taste Test: Gross
Skip it or pick it? Skip it. Like the Special K bar, it’s high in sugar, but this time without the taste to justify it. Though the protein’s high, more fiber would be better.
Luna Nutz Over Chocolate
Calories: 180, 50 from fat
Fat: 6 grams, 2 saturated fat, and 0 grams trans fat
Fiber: 3 grams
Protein: 8 grams
Sugar: 10 grams
Taste Test: Delicious. No, I’m not kidding. It’s actually delicious.
Skip it or Pick it? Pick it—if you don’t need it to keep you full for five hours, since it’s fiber and protein is a little low. But it deserves major props for keep its sugar and saturated fat down while keeping its taste up.
Kellie Nadeau, Nutrition Care Coordinator/Nutrition Services Manager
Katie Clark, MPH, RD, CDE, Assistant Clinical Professor, University of California-San Francisco-School of Nursing