Junk food pretending to be healthy can be hard to spot, but scarfing secretly unhealthy foods can zap your energy and prevent you from reaching your health or fitness goals. These sneaky snacks are everywhere, as proven by a recent study that points out as much as a third of popular protein bars have more saturated fat than a Krispy Kreme donut. Yikes! We caught up with certified nutritionist David Ingalls, the founder and CEO of Zing Bars, to get the scoop on what makes a sports bar healthy, along with what you should look for in yours.

Brit + Co: We鈥檝e read a lot of conflicting information on sports bars, such as when (and when not) to eat them, what to look for, and if they should be a meal replacement or a snack. How do you see a bar as part of a healthy diet and lifestyle?

David Ingalls: As nutrition scientists, we endorse the large body of evidence that supports eating small, frequent meals throughout the day, including one to two wholesome snacks. The right nutrition bar, one comprised of low-glycemic carbs, quality protein, healthy fats, and at least three grams of fiber, can be one of these snacks to stave off hunger. It can also work as a healthy meal replacement.

The key here is choosing a bar (either as a snack or meal replacement) that helps you achieve consistent alertness and energy throughout the day 鈥 without sugar spikes and lows.

B+C: We admit it: Sugary snacks can be hard to part with, especially once a habit has formed. How do you typically advise people who have a hard time cutting back on afternoon treats?

DI: I鈥檇 say to keep it simple: Just swap your favorite sugary snack (like a muffin, pastry, donut, cookie, scone, or banana bread) with a nutritionally balanced bar. It鈥檚 a small change that can help you kick-start a healthier regimen.

B+C: You鈥檙e clearly a pro at helping people adopt healthier changes; we love that your experience at a nutritional counseling practice is what inspired you to create Zing Bars. How鈥檇 that happen?

DI: I worked in a busy, multi-disciplinary clinic in Seattle; blood sugar 鈥渄ysregulation鈥 was rampant and people needed healthy snacks to help control hunger and provide consistent energy throughout their busy days. I continually suggested snacks like smoked salmon lettuce wraps, hummus and carrots, or almond butter with an apple 鈥 but in Seattle鈥檚 fast-paced tech world, people had trouble with food prep and following my recommendations. We kept thinking, 鈥淚f there was just a convenient, packaged product that fit our requirements, our patients would have a much easier time.鈥

We developed Zing Bars as a side business with three original flavors and sold them out of our counseling offices. Our colleagues in Seattle sold them as well, and unknown to us, some of our patients asked local health food retailers to stock Zing Bars. Suddenly, we were getting calls from local natural foods retailers, smoothie shops, and boutique gyms! It was all an organic extension of the recommendations we were giving to our patients, which came from our desire to make healthy eating habits easier to adopt.

B+C: That鈥檚 incredible and we adore your mission to make healthy eating easier. How did you establish the criteria for a bar that truly meets important nutritional needs?

DI: We use the 鈥淰itality Triangle鈥 as a guideline for health- and performance-conscious snackers for achieving sustainable energy. The Vitality Triangle is made up of three components:

B+C: That鈥檚 super helpful. Is there anything else we should look for in bars and snacks to make sure it鈥檚 more than junk food pretending to be healthy?

DI: Absolutely. Here鈥檚 a handful of things to keep in mind:

Does your favorite bar pass the test? Tell us on Twitter @BritandCo!

(Featured photo via Getty)