Energy Bars: Nutritious Meal Replacement or Glorified Candy?

Energy Bars: Nutritious Meal Replacement or Glorified Candy?

Many energy bars claim to fight fatigue, improve concentration, aid with weight loss or enhance your workout. But are they just candy bars in disguise?

By Jane Harrison, RD, Staff Nutritionist, myOptumHealth

You're not alone if a hectic lifestyle leaves you feeling tired and run-down. Maybe you're skipping meals or need an energy kick before your workout. The promise of a convenient "energy on the go" food is very appealing. Better yet when it comes in flavors like chocolate fudge, carrot cake and lemon zest.

Enter energy bars. They are touted to fight fatigue, improve concentration, help you lose weight or boost your workout. But with no research to back up any of these claims, most energy bars are really nothing more than candy bars in disguise.

Food companies love making claims about "energy." Most of us interpret it to mean that it will give us more energy. In truth, "providing energy" simply means that a food gives you calories. From that perspective, every food is an energy food - from carrot sticks to candy bars.

Cut through the hype and flashy packaging, and you're often left with a hefty (and expensive) dose of sugar, oil and a mass of added vitamins and minerals. Yes, some energy bars do contain more nutrients than a candy bar or a bag of chips. But food bars will never beat a well-balanced meal or snack when it comes to meeting your nutrition needs.

But you love energy bars
As with anything, moderation is the key. If you find energy bars are earning their place as a new food group in your diet, consider cutting back. It's fine if you have one now and then. But eat them too often and you are missing out on the fruits, vegetables, beans, low-fat diary and other real foods that form the basis for a nutritious, wholesome diet.

If you find the convenience of energy bars too tempting to pass up, make sure you choose wisely and fit them into the context of a well- rounded diet. Keep the following tips in mind:

Check the label. All bars are different, so read the nutrition info carefully.

  • Try to avoid bars that contain hydrogenated oils, as well as palm kernel oil, a source of saturated fat.
  • Beware of sugar alcohols (such as maltitol, sorbitol, mannitol). These are the main ingredients found in many popular bars. They can cause gas and bloating.
  • Look for a bar that has at least 3 grams of fiber.
  • Avoid bars with excess sugar. It can be disguised as sucrose, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, brown rice syrup and/or dextrose.

Don't use as a meal replacement. A bar may be a better choice than a lunchtime cheeseburger and fries, but it won't beat a salad, a turkey sandwich or a bowl of bean soup.

  • Try to eat at least one real food - like a piece of fresh fruit, some carrots or low-fat yogurt - along with it.
  • If you must substitute a bar for a "meal," aim for one that has about 10 to 15 grams of protein.

Be wary of high protein hype. Many bars will claim they are high in protein, but do not list the percent daily value of protein on the label.

  • Although protein needs increase with exercise, that doesn't mean you need protein bars. You can easily get protein from food.
  • Two hardboiled eggs, 1/2 cup of cottage cheese or just 2 ounces of turkey, fish or chicken provide the same amount of protein found in most high-protein energy bars.

As an occasional snack or quick calorie boost before a workout, energy bars can be part of a healthy diet. Just remember that a well-balanced diet, adequate rest, hydration and exercise are what's really needed to help you feel your best.

Sources:

  • Consumer's Union. Energy bars. Accessed: 03/04/2009
  • American Dietetic Association. Position paper: nutrition and athletic performance. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2009;109(3):509-527. Accessed: 03/11/2009

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