Protein Bars vs. Shakes: Pros, Cons, & Which Is Best?

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When you are looking at ready-made protein options, you may wonder whether commercial protein bars or protein shakes are better.

Both protein bars and shakes are convenient sources of protein. Whether you consume a bar or shake will depend on your personal goals and preferences.  Protein shakes will generally help with weight gain, while protein bars can be better for weight loss.  But, either can be used in each case based on your overall diet.

As you can see, there are a lot of “it depends”.  

So, in this article I will be covering the pros and cons of both protein bars and protein shakes, what to watch out for, and key considerations for weight loss, muscle gain, and pre-and post-workout.

Protein Bar vs. Shake: 4 Key Comparisons

I will explore the similarities and differences between commercial protein bars and ready-made protein shakes in the following areas:

  • Nutritional profile
  • Cost
  • Availability
  • Convenience & portability

Nutritional Profile

After a detailed review of over three dozen protein bars and two dozen ready-made protein shakes, I was able to create the following detailed analysis, standardized to an average 60g serving for a protein bar and 11 fl oz. serving for a ready-made protein shake.

Average Nutritional InfoProtein Bar
(60g serving)
Protein Shake
(11 fl oz)
Bar vs. Shake:
Key Takeaway
Calories237 calories215 caloriesBar 11% more calories
Protein18.1g24.4gShake 35% more protein
Carbohydrates23.0g17.2gBar 34% more carbs
Sugar (added sugar)8.1g (6.6g added)6.8g (4.5g added)Bar 19% more carbs (47% more added sugar)
Fiber5.7g2.3gBar 148% more fiber
Fat9.8g5.9gBar 66% more fat
Sodium218mg236mgShake 8% more sodium

As you can see, protein bars and protein shakes have similar, but not identical nutritional content.  

You will notice that, on average, protein bars provide more calories and more carbs, including added sugars and fiber, and more fat.  

I will cover what this means relative to different goals (weight loss vs weight gain) later in this article.

Cost

The cost of protein bars and protein shakes varies from brand to brand and from retailer to retailer.  

On average protein bars cost slightly more, at 14% more based on an average 60g serving than a protein shake with a serving size of 11 fl oz.

However, looking at the price per actual serving size (keeping in mind that many protein bars are smaller at 45g or 50g and not the average 60g serving size), the average price of an individual bar is within 5% of the average price of an individual protein shake.

For the purposes of this comparison, the cost is not a differentiator for protein bars vs. protein shakes.

Availability

Both protein bars and protein shakes are readily available at supplement stores, major retailers, and online.

Convenience & Portability

Both protein bars and protein shakes are convenient, portable options.  

However, protein bars are lighter and take up less space.  They are also better for traveling as they never require refrigeration and are not subject to restrictions on liquids that apply when flying.

Protein bars have a slight edge in terms of portability since they are suitable for all forms of travel.

Summary 

Protein bars and protein shakes have similar but not identical nutritional content.  This means that one may be better than the other depending on personal goals.  They rank equally in terms of cost and availability.  Protein bars can be a better choice for traveling, especially for air travel.

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Protein Bars

Pros vs Cons of Protein Bars

In this section, I will cover the benefits and drawbacks of protein bars.

Benefits of Protein Bars

There are so many protein bars on the market today that there is a choice for every eating style and dietary requirement imaginable:

  • Allergens: Dairy-free, gluten-free, nut-free, soy-free, low-fiber, etc.
  • Macronutrient Profile: low-carb, high-carb, low-fat, high-fat, etc.
  • Eating approach: carnivore, Keto, Paleo, raw, vegan, whole foods, Zone, etc.

Protein bars are also lightweight, portable, and shelf-stable for long periods of time (they take a long time to spoil and do not require refrigeration).

Protein bars make a quick and easy choice for a snack on the go.

Drawbacks of Protein Bars

The three main drawbacks of protein bars relate to digestion, sugar alcohols, and dietary displacement.

Digestion

Protein bars are often higher in fiber.  This means that they are slower to digest than lower-fiber options, especially compared to low-fiber liquid protein shakes.  

Post-workout, a key consideration is quickly replacing nutrients: carbohydrates to replenish muscle glycogen stores and protein to assist with muscle protein synthesis.  If fiber is too high, it will slow down nutrient uptake.  We recommend limiting fiber during post-workout nutrition.

If you are looking for protein bars for post-workout, check out: 10 Best Low-Fiber Protein Bars (As Rated By Dieticians)

Sugar Alcohols

Protein bars are more likely to contain sugar alcohols, which can cause digestive distress, especially for people with conditions such as IBS or Crohn’s/colitis. 

These ingredients can cause stomach aches, bloating, gas, and laxative effects including diarrhea.

Read labels carefully for these ingredients, and monitor to see if you experience adverse effects to help guide your choices.  

If these ingredients cause discomfort for you, it is best to avoid them.

Related Article: 10 Best Protein Bars Without Sugar Alcohols

Dietary Displacement 

Dietary displacement happens when processed food choices like protein bars crowd out more nutrient-dense whole food choices.  

For example, if a person routinely chooses a protein bar over a meal with minimally processed whole foods, they run the risk of missing out on important micronutrients such as the vitamins and minerals found in whole foods.

The risk of nutrient deficiency from choosing protein bars over meals is discussed in the article Is Eating 3 Protein Bars A Day Bad? (A Dietician Answers).

To avoid the risk of nutrient deficiency from dietary displacement, limit your intake of protein bars to one per day.

Who Should Eat Protein Bars

who should eat protein bars

As outlined in our article Is It Okay To Have A Protein Bar Every Day? (4 Things to Know), protein bars are a great choice for the following:

  • People with a busy schedule, since they do not require preparation or cooking and take less time to eat than a full meal.
  • People having trouble meeting their protein targets, since they are an easy way to add 20-30g of protein.
  • People having trouble meeting their calorie targets, since they are an easy and tasty way to add additional calories when added to a meal or as extra snacks during the day. Note: Protein shakes are even better for adding calories since drinking calories is less filling than eating them and protein shakes generally have less fat and fiber than protein bars, making them quicker to digest.
  • People looking for a convenient and portable post-workout snack, since a protein bar is easy to throw in a gym bag and does not require any additional steps to prepare (no mixing a liquid with a protein powder, no prep or cooking steps in a kitchen)

In addition to the list above, protein bars are a good choice for people looking to lose weight, to provide a more nutritious and macro-balanced snack than typical vending machine fare, and because the protein, fat, and fiber content of a protein bar will be filling and make it easier to manage a calorie deficit.

Related Article: Protein Bars With The Most Protein (We Examined 200+ Bars)

Protein Shakes

In this section, I will cover the benefits and drawbacks of protein shakes.

Benefits of Protein Shakes

Pros vs Cons of Protein Shakes

Similar to protein bars, there are so many protein shakes available now that there is again a  choice for every eating style and dietary requirement imaginable.

Protein shakes are also portable, and many brands are shelf-stable – they do not require refrigeration unless you would like to store them after opening. 

Protein shakes are also more easily customizable than protein bars – you can pour a shake into a shaker bottle or blender and add additional ingredients to suit your needs.  

For example, you can add a carb powder, additional protein powder, or a powdered greens supplement, or you can blend in whole food options like bananas or a handful of spinach.

Check out: 

Like protein bars, ready-made protein shakes are a quick and easy choice for a snack on-the-go.

Drawbacks of Protein Shakes

The three main drawbacks of protein bars relate to satiety, added sugar and preservatives.

Satiety

The main drawback of protein shakes is that they are generally not as filling as solid food choices, including protein bars.  This is a drawback when you are trying to lose weight.  If you don’t feel full, you are more likely to overeat and exceed your calorie target.

If you are trying to lose weight, pick protein bars over protein shakes when you are looking for convenient protein options.

Related Article: 30 Ways to Increase Protein Intake Without Protein Powder

Added Sugars

Some brands of ready-made protein shakes contain high amounts of added sugars.  This is also true of protein bars, but the liquid format of protein shakes allows these sugars to get into the bloodstream even faster.  

Add the fact that we saw that protein shakes are generally not as filling, there is an even higher risk of eating more than the recommended amount of daily added sugars (no more than 25g for women or 36g for men).

Look for protein shakes with no more than 10g of added sugars unless you are specifically adding sugar for bulking goals.

Preservatives

Ready-made protein shakes tend to contain more preservatives, including sodium, to make them shelf-stable.  

If sodium intake is a concern for you, look for brands with no more than 150-250mg per serving.

Who Should Drink Protein Shakes

who should drink protein shakes

Similar to protein bars, protein shakes are a great choice for the same groups:

  • People with a busy schedule, since they do not require preparation or cooking and take less time to eat than a full meal.
  • People having trouble meeting their protein targets, since they are an easy way to add 20- 30g of protein.
  • People having trouble meeting their calorie targets, since they are an even easier way to add additional calories when added to a meal or as extra snacks during the day. 
  • People looking for a convenient and portable post-workout snack, since a protein shake is easy to throw in a gym bag and does not require any additional steps to prepare (no mixing a liquid with a protein powder, no prep or cooking steps in a kitchen)

In addition to the list above, protein shakes are a good choice for people looking to gain weight, since the liquid format and lower fat and fiber content will be less filling and make it easier to manage a calorie surplus.

Protein Bar vs. Protein Shake

I will discuss protein bar vs. protein shake in terms of weight goals, as a meal replacement, and in terms of workout nutrition.

Protein Bar vs Shake: Which is Better For Weight Loss?

A protein bar is better for weight loss because chewing calories requires more time and effort than drinking calories.  This makes you feel full and satisfied with fewer calories.  The higher fat and fiber content also increases satiety so that you feel full for longer, which is key to a calorie deficit for weight loss.

Studies show that chewing food can reduce energy intake and increase satiety.  When you think about the thick and chewy texture of most protein bars, you can see how they take more time to eat and digest than protein shakes.

Protein Bar vs Shake: Which is Better For Weight Gain?

A protein shake is better for weight gain because drinking calories is easier than chewing calories.  Drinking calories provides less satiety and requires less energy to digest those calories.  This means that you will feel less full, and have a higher net intake, which is key for a calorie surplus to gain weight.

For example, it is much easier and faster to drink two protein shakes than it is to eat two protein bars.  

Protein shakes also have less fiber and fat than protein bars, meaning they will digest more quickly and you will feel hungry again more quickly.

Related Article: 30 Ways To Increase Your Protein Without Protein Shakes

Protein Bar vs Shake: Which is Better For A Meal Replacement?

protein bar vs shake which is better for a meal replacement

A protein bar is better for a meal replacement because the need to take time to chew and swallow bites of a protein bar more closely mimics the experience of eating a meal with whole foods.  

When it comes to macronutrients in a meal, we generally recommend a ratio of 2:1 carbs to protein with 25-30% of the calories in a meal coming from protein, meaning 50-60% of the calories coming from carbohydrates and the remaining 10-25% coming from fat.  

On the other hand, when solid foods are not an option for reasons such as surgery or illness, a protein shake can be an excellent meal replacement, especially when it is fortified with added vitamins and minerals and has a higher-than-average carb and fat content to more closely mimic the macro breakdown of a whole meal.

Meal Replacement Protein Bar

When looking for a commercial protein bar to replace a meal, I recommend the following three choices:

MET-Rx Big 100 Meal Replacement Bar (100g)Gatorade Whey Protein Recovery Bar - Chocolate Chip (80g)No Nuts! 100% Nut-Free, Dairy-Free Vegan Protein Bar (TWO 50g bars)
- info shown for 100g
Calories410 calories350 calories380 calories
Protein32g (31% of calories)20g (23% of calories)24g (25% of calories)
Carbohydrates42g (38% of calories)42g (44% of calories)56g (47% of calories)
Sugar (added sugar)24g (24g added)29g (28g added)18g (12g added)
Fiber3g2g18g
Fat14g (31% of calories)13g (33% of calories)12g (28% of calories)
Sodium430mg160mg300mg
Fortified18 vitamins & mineralsNo added vitamins & mineralsNo added vitamins & minerals

These three bars come very close to our suggested macro breakdown for a meal.  The fats are slightly higher, but since fat recommendations are limited for pre- and post-workout, using these bars as a meal replacement away from the training window would still yield an overall balanced intake. 

My top pick is the No Nuts bar for its overall macro profile as well as the highest fiber content which would more closely mimic a meal with whole grains and vegetables.

**Notice that I recommend eating TWO 50g bars to replace one meal. 

The MET-Rx bar has the highest sodium content and exceeds our recommendation for 150-250mg in a protein bar, but it does have added vitamins and minerals.

The Gatorade Recover bar is closer to the recommended 2:1 carbs to protein ratio than the MET-Rx bar and has lower sodium, but it does not have added vitamins and minerals. 

Choosing between the MET-Rx and Gatorade bar would come down to your individual needs and preferences.

Meal Replacement Protein Shake

When looking for a ready-made protein shake to replace a meal, I recommend the Ensure Complete Nutrition Shake.

It has:

  • 350 calories per bottle (10 fl oz)
  • 30g of protein (34% of calories
  • 42g of carbs (48% of calories)
  • 8g of fat (18% of calories)
  • 230mg of sodium
  • Fortified with 25 vitamins & minerals

This is the closest ready-made option to our suggested macro breakdown for a meal.  You could also add some carb powder to the shake to increase the carbs to 60g for the recommended 2:1 ratio.

Protein Bar vs Shake: Which is Better Post-Workout?

protein bar vs shake which is better post-workout

A protein shake is better post-workout because the liquid format and lower fat and fiber content mean that nutrients will be absorbed more quickly, which is optimal for muscle glycogen replenishment and muscle protein synthesis.

Protein Bar vs SHake: Which is Better Pre-Workout?

A protein bar is better pre-workout because the higher carb, fat, and fiber content will be slower digesting and provide more sustained energy for the duration of the workout.  Aim to look for protein bars with minimal fat immediately pre-workout, or allow at least 30-60 mins between eating a protein bar and exercising.

Is Eating A Protein Bar The Same As Drinking A Protein Shake?

Eating a protein bar is not quite the same as drinking a protein shake.  Although they have a similar nutritional profile, the key differences are the rates of digestion.  

Protein bars generally offer more fat and fiber and take longer to digest.  This makes them better for weight loss goals and for pre-workout nutrition to provide a sustained source of energy.

Protein shakes have less fat and less fiber and their liquid format mean that they are digested more quickly and are usually less filling.  This makes them better for weight gain goals and for post-workout nutrition to provide quick replenishment of nutrients.

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Final Thoughts

You have seen that there are several considerations that go into choosing a protein bar or a protein shake.  Rest assured that no matter what your goals and preferences are, there is a protein bar or shake on the market to meet your needs.


About The Author

Lauren Graham
LAUREN GRAHAM

Lauren Graham is a Precision Nutrition Level 1 certified nutrition coach. She focuses on helping busy professionals balance healthy eating and purposeful movement.  Lauren has a background in competitive swimming and is currently competing as a CrossFit athlete.  She has a passion for training, teaching, and writing.