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Food & Cooking Articles   |  Healthier Eating

Choosing the Best Energy Bar

Edible Energy: Find the Right Bar for Your Needs

-- By Becky Hand, Licensed & Registered Dietitian

You walk into your local grocery or convenience store and inevitably stumble upon a sea of energy bars. Feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the plethora of health claims, you quickly buy an eye-catching bar with an appealing flavor. But did you really get the best bar to suit your needs?

Before making a purchase, think about why you are eating that bar—additional protein, a handy snack or a mini-meal replacement following a workout? Do you feel that because you are dieting, exercising or focusing on your health that energy bars are simply a must? Whatever your reasoning, know that energy bars are not a necessary part of a healthy, balanced diet. Before you buy, remember these pros and cons:

Pros
There are a lot of reasons why energy bars are so popular. In general, energy bars:

  • Can help meet your energy (calorie) needs
  • May help meet your nutritional needs protein, carbohydrates and fat
  • May help to meet other nutritional needs depending on the added vitamins and minerals. Some nutrients that are often added include calcium, zinc, iron, vitamin D, vitamin B-12, folic acid, protein and fiber
  • Are portable, convenient and pre-packaged
  • May keep you out of dangerous areas such as the vending machine or fast food drive-thru
  • Can help ward off binge eating if you become excessively hungry
  • Have a long shelf life and don't require refrigeration.
Cons
Consider these downsides.
  • Excessive nutrients. Energy bars can contribute to an excessive intake of nutrients, especially if you are eating more than one bar daily, are already taking a multivitamin supplement or are eating other fortified (enriched) foods and beverages. The dangers of over-supplementation vary from minor intestinal discomfort (diarrhea and constipation) to liver disease, nerve damage or even death.
  • Excessive calories. If using too many, too often, energy bars may contribute to a high calorie intake, which can lead to weight gain.
  • Cost.  At $1 to $2 a bar, this convenience food can quickly become a major expense on your grocery bill.
  • Abdominal discomfort. Some energy bars (especially low-sugar, low-carb and high-fiber varieties) contain sugar alcohols and alternative fiber sources (inulin, chicory root); which can cause bloating, gas and diarrhea in some individuals. While these ingredients are safe to consume, monitor your individual tolerance.
  • Lack of data. There is very little research to support the actual need for energy bars. While many provide claims regarding weight loss, antioxidants and muscle building, they are not a magical food and should not be used as a constant replacement for whole foods in your diet.
  • Processing. Energy bars are a highly processed food, whereas whole, unprocessed foods should be the staples of a healthy diet.
  • Additives. Some energy bars contain additional herbal ingredients or weight-loss aids. There is no data to show that any of these are effective or beneficial to health. There are no standards regarding potency or safety or effectiveness in these supplemental ingredients—and many can result in medication interaction and possible dangerous side effects.<pagebreak>
While no energy bar is perfect, do your homework to ensure the next bar you eat isn't just a glorified candy bar. Use the following criteria, based on your needs—meal replacement, afternoon snack or workout fuel. And above all, enjoy your energy bar! Find a flavor and consistency that you like. Make sure that your body tolerates the energy bar with no intestinal discomfort, especially if you plan to use the bar prior to an athletic event.
 
Meal Replacement Bars
When lunch is out of reach, an energy bar can be used on occasion. Adding a piece of fruit, some raw veggies and a serving of yogurt or milk can help round out this quick, on-the-go meal. Read the nutrition label to find a bar that contains the following nutritional metrics if replacing a meal:
  • About 200-300 calories
  • 3 grams of fiber or more
  • Less than 20 grams of sugar
  • No more than 30% of your RDA for vitamins and minerals
  • Approximately 20-40 grams carbohydrates, 10-23 grams protein and 10 grams of fat or less.
 
Meal Replacement  Bar Weight Calories Carbs
Sugar
 
Protein
Fat            
 

Fiber
 
Atkins Advantage Chocolate Peanut Butter Bar 60 g 250  23 g 1 g 17 g 14 g 9 g
Balance Bar, cookie dough 50 g 210  22 g 17 g 15 g 7 g <1 g
Boost Nutrition Bar, chocolate 50 g 210  25 g 12 g 11 g 7 g 2 g
Clif Bar, oatmeal raisin walnut 68 g 240  43 g 22 g 10 g 5 g 5 g
Clif Bar, white chocolate macadamia nut 68 g 260 41 g 21 g 9 g 7 g 4 g
Larabar, lemon bar 51 g 220  28 g 22 g 6 g 11 g 3 g
Odwalla Superfood Bar, Berries GoMega 56 g 210  36 g 16 g 5 g 6 g 5 g
Power Bar, Caramel Peanut Fusion 55 g 230  31 g 15 g 10 g 9 g 3 g
PromaxLS, peanut butter chocolate 67 g 220  32 g 9 g 18 g 7 g 14 g
Pure Organic, apple cinnamon 48 g 200 27 g 18 g 5 g 8 g 3 g
Zing, almond blueberry 50 g 220 23 g 11 g 11 g 9 g 6 g
ZonePerfect, chocolate mint 50 g 210  24 g 13 g 14 g 7 g 3 g
 
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Afternoon Snack Bars
For your afternoon snack, be aware that many bars have calorie and sugar level similar to candy bars. Use the criteria below to find a bar with a boost of protein and fiber, and be sure to use your snack bar wisely. The goal of this snack is to not only keep you energized until your next meal, but to keep you away from other tempting, high-calorie less nutritious snacks. Read the nutrition label to find a bar that contains:
  • About 100-200 calories
  • At least 1 gram of fiber
  • Less than 15 grams of sugar
  • No more than 20% of your RDA for vitamins and minerals
  • Approximately 10-25 grams carbohydrates, 5-15 grams protein and 7 grams of fat or less.
Snack Replacement  Bar

Weight    
 
Calories    
Carbs    
 

Sugar    
 

Protein     
 

Fat        
 
Fiber    
Atkins Endulge Chocolate Coconut Bar 40 g 170  19 g 1 g 5 g 12 g 9 g
Glucerna Nutrition Bars Mini Snack,
chocolate peanut
20 g 80 12 g 4 g 3 g 3.5 g <1 g
Glucerna Nutrition Bars Crispy Delights,
chocolate chip
40 g 140 20 g 5 g 10 g 4.5 g 3 g
BeneFit Bar, blueberry 40 g 150  25 g 13 g 6 g 3.5 g 1 g
Kashi GoLean Crisp, chocolate almond 45 g 170  27 g 13 g 8 g 5 g 5 g
Kind Plus, cranberry almond 40 g 190  20 g 11 g 4 g 13 g 3 g
Larabar Uber, apple turnover 40 g 190  20 g 15 g 3 g 11 g 3 g
LUNA, peanut butter cookie 48 g 180  26 g 11 g 9 g 6 g 3 g
Medifast Cookie Dough Chewy Bar 36 g 110  15 g 6 g 11 g 3 g 4 g
Nature Valley Salted Caramel Nut
Protein Bar
40 g 190  14 g 6 g 10 g 12 g 5 g
PROBAR Fuel, cherry 48 g 160  33 g 18 g 3 g 3 g 4 g
SOYJOY, strawberry 30 g 130  17 g 11 g 4 g 5 g 3 g
 
Workout Fuel

Before hitting the gym or starting a long run, your body needs carbohydrates. It is best to avoid protein, fat, fiber and sugar alcohols, all of which can delay the emptying time of the stomach and slow digestion, causing cramps and sluggish energy levels. Energy bars are usually too high in protein, fat, fiber and possibly sugar alcohols to be used for pre-exercise nourishment. Instead, try another quick-digesting food source before exercising. Read What to Eat before a Workout for ideas.  

During your workout, energy bars are not an appropriate refueling choice because aerobic and high-intensity exercises require blood flow to the muscles, not to the stomach for the digestion of foods. After exercising for more than 60-90 minutes, consider a sports drink or sports gel to boost your energy levels, promote hydration and balance electrolytes in the body.

Energy bars may work for low-intensity, very long-duration activities such as a long, slow hike or bike ride. (During lower-intensity exercise, less blood is diverted to the muscles.)

After your exercise session, your body needs mostly carbohydrates (to replenish glycogen stores in the muscles), some protein (to help repair damaged muscle tissue) and a little fat (for cellular repair). Eating a "real" and complete meal is your best bet. But if you cannot eat a meal within two hours of working out, then an energy bar paired with a glass of water and a piece of fruit is a good option. Look for a meal replacement bar (see examples above) with at least 30 grams of carbohydrate, 10 grams (or more) of protein and 5-10 gram of fat. Read What to Eat after a Workout for more tips and food ideas.
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Bar None
Don’t ever feel that you have to rely on energy bars to meet your calorie and nutritional needs. These snack ideas provide energy, nutrition and flavor in a convenient, budget-friendly package:
  • Fresh fruits: apples, oranges, pears, plums, grapes, bananas
  • Individually packaged fruit and applesauce cups
  • Yogurt
  • String cheese
  • Whole grain crackers (plain or with hummus, cheese or peanut butter)
  • Whole grain bagels
  • Whole grain muffins
  • Homemade trail mix
  • Homemade granola bar
  • Packaged granola bars
  • Carton of  low-fat milk, chocolate milk or juice
  • Graham crackers and peanut butter
 
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