Since I started the ChaLEAN Extreme exercise program in December of last year, I’ve been on a quest to find the best protein bars (and shakes) for me. In this blog, I’m finally putting into writing what I’ve discovered.
First, a few caveats
- The ChaLEAN Extreme program advises that protein bars should be under 300 calories and have 20+ grams of protein.
- I’m hypoglycemic, which makes me sensitive to (and not really wild about) sugar and sweetness. That said, I love chocolate (though the darker kinds with less ingredients, such as Green & Black’s 70% Dark).
- I’ll happily pay more for what I think is a better product.
- I’m not into running around to various stores during the same shopping trip, nor am I keen on lots of prep time.
- I do not use any of these as meal replacements, but rather as high protein, low calorie snacks in the mornings and afternoons.
The adventure begins
Once I hit the Push phase of ChaLEAN Extreme, I was excited because I thought that I could resume eating one of my regular snacks: Zone Perfect chocolate mint bars. Unfortunately, when I read the nutritional information on the box, I learned these bars didn’t cut it! I had always thought Zone was high in protein (and compared to lots of bars, they are). While the calorie count was good, they didn’t meet the criteria for protein, and I wanted to follow the ChaLEAN program correctly. I remember going to various stores—Whole Foods, Hannafords, Roche Bros, and Stop and Shop—and looking at so many bars I thought my head would spin. I was really surprised at how difficult it was to find something that met this criteria.
In the interest of time, I decided to suck it up and just try the P90x Peak Performance Protein bars that were recommended by BeachBody. I ordered the variety pack, figuring that I could try all four flavors and go from there. I was pleasantly surprised with these bars. The two chocolate (fudge and peanut butter) flavors are good, and I loved the Cafe Mocha. Wildberry Yogurt was a little sweeter than I prefer, but still tasty. These bars are also a decent size, so you feel like you are actually eating something substantial. The downside, of course, is having to order them online instead of being able to pick them up in a store. This means that you need to order them before you run out, and you pay additional for shipping. (That said, I’ve never had an issue with promptness.)
Finding more options
One day, I was in Whole Foods looking at bars, and I happened upon the Think Thin brand. They were on sale and met my criteria, so I grabbed a few flavors that sounded good. And, they were! However…these bars are smaller than the p90x, so they don’t feel *quite* as substantial, and I’d describe them as a little more desserty than the P90x ones. Additionally, you have to be careful, because not all of the flavors actually have the 20g of protein!
Feeling like there were more options to be explored, I found myself in Target, grabbing some one-off bars that met the protein / calorie criteria, just to try them. These included Clif Builder’s bars (in Chocolate Mint and Lemon flavors) and Pure Protein bars (in Chocolate Deluxe flavor). Again, I was pleasantly surprised by both. Perhaps just by rumor, I’d always imagined that these things would taste awful. (Who knows though, maybe they’ve improved over the years, or I have dull, patient taste buds!) Apart from feeling like I might be turning into a muscle man, both flavors of the Clif Builder’s were good—and I hadn’t really expected to like the Lemon. The Clif Builder’s are about as big as the p90x, so you feel like you’ve actually eaten something with these too. I’d also say they have a better consistency than the p90x, because they’re a little bit crunchier and not quite as dense. The Pure Protein bars are smaller than the Think Thin ones, and (at least for the two flavors I’ve tried—Chocolate Deluxe and Chewy Chocolate Chip—are…well, chewier…sometimes to the point that you feel like you’re eating a rich brownie. (Of course, that might sound good or bad, depending on how you feel about brownies. )
Protein bar summary: the “winner” depends on what you’re craving
Here’s my summary of the protein bars I’ve tried and described above. Let me know what you think of these, or if there’s a good bar that I missed!
|P90x Peak Performance Protein bars||Online only, come in a case.||Large, substantial.||All chocolate-based flavors are good—not too soft or too hard; good for a snack that’s not too desserty.||There’s an autoship option you can choose to get more bars every 30 days. Careful to choose it intentionally!|
|Think Thin bars||Spotted at Whole Foods and Hannafords, generally sold as singles. Also online.||Small, though not much less in terms of calories than the p90x bars.||Chocolate-based flavors are soft and creamy; better for feeling like you ate a little dessert.||Read the labels–not all flavors have 20g of protein.|
|Clif Builder’s bars||Spotted at Target and most of the grocery stores I mentioned. You can buy them by the box, and sometimes as singles. Also online.||Large, substantial.||I’ve enjoyed all the flavors I’ve tried. These aren’t as hard or dense as the p90x bars, and not as soft or chewy as the Think Thin or Pure Protein bars. In fact, I prefer their consistency to all the others.||Make sure you look for the “Builder” version, since the regular version doesn’t have as high a protein content. These were also the most addictive of the bunch for me–careful not to eat too many, or you’ll defeat the purpose. See Final Notes below for help.|
|Pure Protein bars||Spotted at Target and many of the grocery stores I mentioned. Only seen as a box. Also online.||Smallest of the bars I’ve tried, though eating them takes more chewing so may feel more substantial than they look!||The most desserty of the bunch, but for 180 calories, these also have the best protein-to-calorie ratio!||After trying Chocolate Deluxe, I was surprised that the calorie count for Chewy Chocolate Chip was different (though 200 isn’t a big difference), and it was almost too chewy and sweet for my tastes. Unfortunately, you may have to try a whole box to figure that out.|
So what about the shakes?
I started with the Rainbow Light Chocolate Protein Energizer shake one day when I saw it at Roche Bros. The instant I tried this shake, I did *not* like the taste at all. But, I can be persistent, and I liked that it had spirulina in it (which is supposed to help with hypoglycemia), so I kept it up. I’ll go so far as to say I got used to the taste, though I never really liked it. Changing out the type of milk didn’t seem to do much for it either.
Soon after, my BeachBody coach mentioned Shakeology in passing, when I emailed her to say I was STARVING between the Burn and Push phases, and needed something else to snack on. I wasn’t thrilled with trying another shake, but decided what the heck. Instead of ordering samples, I immediately ordered a big ol’ bag of the Chocolate flavor, because after the Rainbow Light stuff, I figured it couldn’t possibly be worse. I was pleasantly surprised when I first tried it—first with no fixings, just pure water. (I’m not really a milk person, so I was happy it didn’t require me to drink the stuff, which also added calories.) In its natural state, this shake reminded me of going to a smoothie bar and getting a nice, refreshing, tasty dessert. It totally filled me up! What’s even more fun is that they enclose a little calendar of add-ons that you can use to customize the shake. I started by trying the simplest things: e.g. a teaspoon of vanilla extract (because I already had it in the cabinet); a teaspoon of mint (oh, way way too much, but some adjustment made this yummy too); bananas, berries, even coffee. I haven’t been disappointed with a single recipe! Plus, they include non-drinkable dessert recipes you can make with Shakeology too. (Haven’t tried these, partially because I didn’t want to *waste* the shake mix on that!) I need to try the Greenberry flavor next.
While at Hannafords one day, I happened upon a bottle of Muscle Milk Light, and decided to try it. Much like a Carnation instant breakfast in taste, this little chocolate milk-like shake did the trick. A nice alternative to Shakeology when you want something pre-made, although it doesn’t have all the fancy herbal stuff in it.
Protein shake summary: clear winner in my book
Here’s my summary of the shakes I’ve tried and described above. Let me know what you think of these, or if there’s a good shake that I missed!
|Rainbow Light Chocolate Protein Energizer Shake||Whole Foods, Roche Bros; also online.||I never did much to this, other than change the type of milk.||Not great at all. I made myself “get used to it”. Kind of thick and chalky.||None that I can think of, other than the nasty taste.|
|Shakeology||Online only. Comes in sample sizes and the big bag!||Awesome. The big bag comes with a whole month’s full of recipes you can try, including some non-drinkable desserts. Every one I’ve tried so far is easy and delicious!||Best I’ve ever had, though I have yet to try the Greenberry flavor. (I’ll be sure to report back.) Rich, chocolatey experience that’s not too sweet but doesn’t taste at all like chalk. Not as thick as Rainbow light, but not as thin as Muscle Milk Light. You can always change it around of course, based on how much ice you use.||If you do the mint customization, use a lot less than they say, unless you’re using fresh mint! Whooph!|
|Muscle Milk Light||Hannafords, Target, GNC; also online.||I’ve never done any customizations to this one.||I can only speak to the premixed bottles—they taste kind of like Carnation Instant breakfasts. A little sweeter than the other two I’m mentioning, but not sickly so.||Like the Clif Builder bars, can make you feel a bit like a muscle man. Be sure to get the LIGHT version if you’re watching the calories.|
Two final notes
Like all yummy things, I found myself getting somewhat addicted to some of the protein bars, so now when I use them for a morning or afternoon snack, I actually cut them in half, then put the halves in two different plastic baggies along with five almonds each. This gives me a really portable snack that’s a mix of chocolate and nuts together, in a nice single size portion. I find that because they’re bigger, the p90x and Clif Builder bars work best for this. (People at work have actually commented on my bars looking really delicious!)
Second, I found it somewhat difficult to make shakes anywhere other than home, where I have a nice smoothy-making blender. After trying the silly shaker bottles and finding them less than adequate (unless in a real pinch), I found this lovely little Hamilton Beach Single Serve Blender at Target (though lots of other places sell them). It’s under $20, is crazy quiet and very portable. Another nice thing is that the top turns into the glass you drink the shake out of! It’s also very easy to clean. Downsides? With 8oz water, some ice, and a scoop of something like Shakeology, it gets full quickly—leaving little room for something else, like a banana. And if you run it too long, mine starts to smell bad. But, I would totally buy it again, because with Shakeology being good enough plain, it more than suits my needs.