Are protein bars actually fuelling your recovery?

Protein ice cream. Protein bars. Protein Bread. Protein Pasta. You name it – there’s a protein version for it out there*.

*Note that I am not saying any of these products were inherently bad, that people shouldn’t eat or I’d never buy them out of curiosity. The focus of my thoughts here is a different one as you’ll see in a minute.

While I’d been aware of the high popularity of a certain brand of protein bars – okay, Quest bars – among bloggers for a long time it wasn’t until I joined Instagram that I noticed a pattern. The seemingly biggest group consuming said bars, shakes and other protein cookies/puddings/ice creams? Not the body builders or figure competitors the companies probably created them for in the first place. No, people recovering from eating disorders. People whose intention [or at least this would be my assumption and personal goal] is to re-learn a normal and intuitive eating behavior. Call me quick to judge but I see protein treats as a potential barrier on the recovery road. Allow me to elaborate.

Carbs? Scary. Fat? Potentially scary, too. Protein? The least scary macronutrient ever to anybody in the #fitfam and people in recovery. But: recovery should be scary. It should mean challenging yourself and facing fears. Having a protein treat rather than a real one deserves the hashtag #cheatclean, yes. Because you’re cheating yourself by sticking to a ‘clean’, non-scary lifestyle. It’s like bargaining with your ED: Fine, you’ll eat more but you make sure it comes from the presumed ‘healthiest’ source of calories – protein. And yes, you might gain the much needed weight. But you might slow down your recovery process and probably won’t loose the fear towards certain foods [sugar, white flour, …].

Quest bar_s'mores_protein

If you’re thriving on a high-protein diet that’s cool. I’m not telling anybody to drop the protein bar and I will openly say I’m curious to try some interesting protein treats, too [see picture above; explanation to follow in my next post]. Yet for me this is merely curiosity and not the belief I’d need to monitor or manage my macros.I know what works for me and also that different people have different needs. I might be off here. There’s always time for diet experimentation but when protein bars or shakes are considered meal replacements, people apparently skimp on the carbs even at family gatherings or special occasions I do wonder about the reasoning. It could be because I – as somebody with a history of [and still in recovery from] an eating disorder – am more sensitive towards these things.

If you declare a protein cookie to taste ‘just like grandma’s’ than I assume/hope you do eat the latter on occasion, too. Or do you bring your own protein treats to family gatherings [and potentially offend grandma]? Recovery is about getting back a life you will be able to sustain in the long term. Is it realistic to find protein versions of all the foods people around you eat in every setting in your life? What about holidays in different countries? Traveling for work? Or simply living in a place that doesn’t offer easy availabilty of high-protein treats like Quest bars, Complete Cookies and what not all? At least from my experiences it doesn’t seem like an easily sustainable lifrstyle plus we don’t actually need all that much protein and can cover our needs eating real foods but that just as an aside.

Mint chocolate

The moral of the story? Like any other food [and what every package of supplements tells you] protein bars can be part of a balanced diet. Just make sure you’re not using them to replace real and/or fear foods. No choices in our lives should come from a place of fear. If you want a protein bar because you really enjoy the taste – go for it. Grandma’s cookies or that bar of chocolate? Same.

Happiness-inducing today: Talking to a friend on the phone while out on a walk. If we can’t walk outside together this is a good compromise.

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No questions but I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the topic.

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34 thoughts on “Are protein bars actually fuelling your recovery?

  1. Laura says:

    A. Men.
    I’m so glad someone brought this up. I’ve noticed it for awhile now but just didn’t say anything. I feel like all I see right now amongst recovery bloggers are no bake protein items and quest bars. I’ll never understand the quest bar infatuation–my stomach can’t handle the insanely high fiber and sugar alcohols, but knowing that I’m not the only one skeptical of this is actually surprisingly comforting.

  2. Strength and Sunshine says:

    Not totally on the topic you brought up, but Quest bars are disgusting! I could rant forever about them! They are pure manufactured garbage created in a lab with whey protein ISOLATE, chemicals, and just…scary things, unnatural, not-real-food things. I’ve never had one nor will I ever (obviously since they aren’t vegan either 😛 ) Hahaha! I am really anti-quest!

    • Miss Polkadot says:

      You’re right in this not being the topic. (: Criticizing anybody’s choices on here is never my intention even if I don’t agree with some personally because this doesn’t create a good atmosphere for a discussion. And did I miss something about you being vegan now? I thought you ate meat. (:

  3. Ellie says:

    HERE HERE!!! I agree with this 100% I know that when I consider a protien bar “dessert” I am not in the best mindset about my body. I understand them for athletes, which I am as well, but prefer real food and desserts to bars because I know I am not elite and therefore the majority of my life is outside of sport. I eat a well rounded diet and do not need a supplemental macronutrient. Therefore, if I want something to taste like grandma’s cookies, it will be grandma’s cookies. Great post!!

    • Miss Polkadot says:

      Thank you, Ellie. It sounds like you had a healthy approach to food especially regarding athletes vs. ‘normal’ runners’ needs. Your grandma will be happy about this, too. (:

  4. Julia @ Lord Still Loves Me says:

    Okay, coming from me, who used to eat a staggering amount of quest bars in order to keep my intake up, I have a very interesting perspective on this. Initially, protein bars were literally the only thing I could eat in order to get my calories up. They tasted good, so I felt like I was going out of my comfort zone by having something delicious. It was not until I finally branched out, had pizza and ice cream and hamburgers, that I realized how much I was jipping myself of true recovery by holding on to just eating protein bars. I would never tell someone else how to recover, but I don’t think eating a bunch of Quest bars (while I do find them delicious) will help ultimate recovery. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

    • Miss Polkadot says:

      Thank you for sharing your experiences, Julia. I know your recovery journey has inspired many and it’s great you were able to see at which point you had to let go of bars and challenge yourself to other foods. Actually, I didn’t have the use of protein bars to reach a recovery intake in mind while writing this so I appreciate the input. It’s not something I ever needed as – and it seems like I was in the minority here – I never lost my appetite so didn’t need shakes or bars. I do see it coming in handy for a while here, though.

  5. annalisemishler says:

    I agree with this 100%! Like Julia, I relied on protein bars in the beginning of my recovery because they weren’t “scary” to me, and I was literally dying so at that point any food was totally fine. Now I will choose a cookie or even some fruit over a protein bar any day! While they were a good tool because I did need to be eating–no matter what it was–I think once you get a bit more physically recovered it’s time to ditch the protein-packed products if you’re eating them out of fear.

    • Miss Polkadot says:

      Julia and you are making a very good point here and I’m glad you chimed in. In no way would I want to say protein treats are bad and especially not if they help kickstart recovery and aid in much-needed weight gain.

  6. Liz @ I Heart Vegetables says:

    This is such an interesting perspective, and I liked reading the other comments, too. I don’t know much about eating disorder recovery but I could definitely see this sort of like, being another way to manage disordered eating patterns. I feel like as a vegetarian I’m constantly getting told that I need more protein, haha. But if I feel good and my body is healthy, I don’t know if I need dozens of protein bars 😉

    • Miss Polkadot says:

      As a fellow vegetarian I actually haven’t heard the protein question – iron is a more popular one ;). It’s great you’re feeling happy, healthy and in tune with your needs, Liz. Protein really is a little overrated these days and knowing you even did a WIAW post on this a while back it’s obvious protein bars aren’t essential to reach a good intake

  7. Lilly says:

    Ahhh you are a brave lady, touching on a bit of an “elephant in the room” subject. I’m happy to see this being brought out in a post. I, personally, have never been part of “protein enthused” group. In fact, unlike most it seems, protein was always a large fear of mine amidst my disorder – especially the fear of having “too much.” Protein bars were, and still are, only consumed after a workout if I know I need an extra protein hit specifically. Like you I never want to shame anyone for their choices, especially if they are just doing what they need to during recovery (anything is progress and everyone is strong!!). I just feel a bit sad, to be honest, when I see all sorts of recovery blogs and instagrams covered with Quest bars (in particular) because, yes, as you say, I feel like it may just be placing food restriction into a different light. Like the “passing of the torch”. Compensation. A “bargain with the disorder”, as you say. And again, this is all just because I know full well how that works – I have been there and still am. This all being said, protein is very good for us and very very necessary especially during a re-feeding and recovery process – so if this is how the protein is going to get consumed – then at least there are calories going in. I agree with Annalist in that, I hope once one becomes more physically recovered, they would be open to expanding their choices.

    • Miss Polkadot says:

      It’s funny you would mention the slight ‘taboo’ around addressing the topic, Lilly. I will admit I worried about upsetting anybody for a second after publishing the post despite trying to make a point of this not being my intention.
      Interesting protein was in fact a fear of yours. That’s something I hadn’t seen or heard of before but EDs are obviously different for everybody. And also on this topic, yes, anything is progress and like you I’d rather see somebody eat a protein bar than nothing at all. Though at some point hopefully everybody breaks out of ruts and eats a larger variety of food.

  8. Meghan@CleanEatsFastFeets says:

    You know how I feel about these bars and the subject of processed protein enhanced food in general. I never thought of it in terms of safe recovery food, but you’re probably onto something there. Makes sense to me.

    Walk away from the bar. Eat the potato chips instead. 🙂

    • Miss Polkadot says:

      We will have to disagree on the potato chips but I can forgive you for not having had a chance to try Erdnussflips yet ;). I’m in complete agreement about opting for real foods over bars most of the time, though.

  9. fuelforfreedom says:

    Wow. I had never thought of protein bars and such like that before. Recalling my own recovery, though, it’s too true. I would eat a Quest bar instead of a “scary” sandwich. Protein shakes filled me up so I wouldn’t be tempted to eat as much. Now, I’ll eat a Quest bar once in a blue moon if I’m out-and-about or traveling and need a snack. I still drink protein shakes because I like the taste and they help me recover after weightlifting, but then I’ll go have a real lunch filled with all the protein, fats, and carbs I want. Packaged protein foods definitely have their place, as I believe no food is inherently “evil.” But when we’re using them as substitutes for real food is when the issue comes in. Maybe I’ll be craving a protein cookie one day, and that’s fine. Maybe the next I’ll have a cookie my sister baked, and that’s fine too.

    • Miss Polkadot says:

      “Packaged protein foods definitely have their place, as I believe no food is inherently “evil.’” <- this! That’s exactly the point I was going for. I’m not for shunning any foods – whether it’s including them in my diet or respecting others eating them.
      It’s wonderful you were able to see the reasoning behind protein bars and shakes in your recovery and are at a point now where you have a truly balanced outlook on food.

  10. Amanda @ .running with spoons. says:

    I love that you brought this up, because it’s something I’ve been wondering about as well. I can’t eat most store-bought bars because of my peanut allergies, but I honestly never understood the appeal of something that’s so heavily processed and loaded with chemicals. I’m glad it died down a little bit, but all the #questporn and #chunkporn (wtf?!?!) was driving me crazy for a while there. Protein bars can be helpful in getting those calories in, but they definitely shouldn’t be used to avoid eating other fear foods.

    • Miss Polkadot says:

      Oh, you would be surprised to see how much ##chunkporn is out there still … A completely different issue but I don’t get the whole ‘porn’ related to food in general.
      Like I said I am curious about the bars taste-wise but yes, I will play the ‘ignorance is bliss’ tunes about the ingredients. Those of a chocolate bar read much nicer and help me get in my calories [and a huge lot of satisfaction], too.

  11. Kate Bennett says:

    Totally. Healthy versions of pretty much any dessert made me not feel guilty about what I was eating. Sure I could eat a chocolate brownie cliff bar, but an actual brownie made with butter and white sugar scared me senseless. I am no longer fooled by this.
    I still enjoy protein bars, but I don’t consider them dessert nor do I want them to be a major part of my diet (mostly because they are pricey!).

    • Miss Polkadot says:

      The price would be a huge issue for me, too. Not like I wasn’t spending a good amount on foods like nut butter or quality chocolate [and also produce, ahem] but I still think buying real foods is cheaper than living off protein treats. Anyway, I’m happy you’ve lost fear of actual treats and found a balance in your life.

  12. hungryforbalance says:

    I’m with Kate here. I do eat protein bars (probably more often than I should) but they are an easy way for me to get some quick protein after teaching a fitness class.
    That is interesting about the quest bars and eating disorder recovery.

  13. Morgan @ Morgan Manages Mommyhood says:

    Yes! I’ve never suffered from an ED but I did go through a big life change in college and lost 40/50 pounds. I did find myself “justifying” eating protein bars and what not as treats because they were “healthy” and completely avoiding the real thing. It’s a shaky road to go down. and thankfully I got a reality check when I was pregnant with my son when i had crazy cravings and fought to keep my diet pretty natural for his benefit.

  14. Khushboo Thadani (@KhushbooThadani) says:

    Great post, girl and I really agree with what you’re saying! Although these protein products make it easy to get protein in, you just can’t compare them to real food. Sure an energy bar might contain 30g of protein but that has no indication on how it’s going to affect hormonal activity in the body especially if it’s soy protein. I am always weary if I see the term ‘protein’ next to a dessert e.g. protein ice cream or protein cookies- the idea of adding whey protein to oats and baking it up just doesn’t sound right!!!

    • Miss Polkadot says:

      Thank you, Khushboo! Like you, I see how using powders or bars might be an easy way to up the amount of protein in a diet but real food will forever reign surpreme. The effects of soy are a wholly different topic to be aware of.

  15. recoveringforchocolate says:

    YES! I have been trying so hard to articulate my exact same feelings on the topic and you hit the nail on the head! Thank you so much for sharing!

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