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Are you a fan of protein bars? Nutritionist Diana Robinson has the pros and cons of how to pick the perfect one for you.

There are so many varieties of protein bars on the market, and they’re all found in the health food section of supermarkets and in natural foods stores - but just how healthy are these so-called health bars? Let's check out what to look for in a healthy protein bar:

Firstly, choose a protein bar that has as few ingredients as possible. A good rule of thumb is no more than seven ingredients. Or, at the very least, no ingredients that you have no idea what they are.

Secondly, check what sweeteners they are using. This is especially important if you have irritable bowel syndrome or a sensitive stomach. Sweeteners such as maltitol and erythritol can cause abdominal bloating and discomfort. A little may be OK, but just be careful not to overdo it. The bars that use the most amount of these sweeteners tend to be the ones that are also coated in sugar-free chocolate or contain chocolate chips.

Third, is it whey protein, pea or rice? All are fine, but again, if you suffer from abdominal bloating after eating protein bars despite avoiding maltitol and erythritol (see above), you may actually be sensitive to the protein itself The most common intolerance is whey; however, pea and rice can also have an effect on certain people. To find out if you are sensitive to the protein base, try eating a bar with one type of protein, then wait three days before trying the next bar. Symptoms can be experienced immediately or for up to three days following the consumption of a reactive food.

Finally, remember that each time you eat anything at all, you have an opportunity to nourish your body. If you choose a snack that is limited in nutrition, you are one opportunity behind for that day's goal of achieving the right amount of quality nutrients you need. Try to choose bars that offer other nutrients, such as antioxidants and superfoods, and not just protein.

Sports vs vegan?

Sports bars tend to use more artificial ingredients and sweeteners that may cause digestive discomfort. Many people don’t realise the impact their daily 'healthy' protein bar is having on their digestion. Also, sports bars tend to be very high in protein and low in other nutrients, so if you eat them regularly, you are at a higher risk of nutritional deficiencies, as you are missing out on a meal or snack opportunity that could provide you with other nutrients besides protein.
On the whole, vegan bars are usually a healthier option. Regardless of the fact that they use a vegan protein, the important thing is that they use natural ingredients and natural low-GI sweeteners, such as rice syrup or a small amount of dried fruit. The result is a bar that is higher in nutritional content, essential fatty acids, and fibre. The protein content is usually slightly lower than in sports bars, making them a better choice for a daily snack and as part of a healthful diet.

Diana Robinson is a Melbourne-based clinical nutritionist. www.dianarobinsonnutrition.com