As a runner of long distance races, I long ago discovered energy bars. In fact, Clif, maker of a wide variety of bars, cleverly sponsors my running group. In return, they gain a large loyal following among serious runners.Today, however, at any market or convenience store I encounter what seems like an infinite choice of brands, flavors, and contents. How do we choose the right bar? Might some of them be candy, disguised as nutrition? Let's explore. To start with, when should we eat an energy bar? Sitting down to a balanced meal of whole foods is always preferable, but energy bars do have a place during endurance exercises such as marathons, all day soccer, softball, and other competitions. Also, people "on the go" who simply don't have the opportunity to put together a nutritious meal, may elect to eat an energy bar as an alternative. They are convenient, easy to carry around, and may even be nutritious. What kind of bar should we choose? There are far too many bars on the market to examine each one here. The literature tends to divide these bars into three functional categories: bars for fueling up before exercise, meal replacement bars, and healthy snack bars. In general, fueling bars should have 150 - 300 calories, be low in fat (about three grams or 27 calories), low in fiber (less than two grams), and have 20 - 30% of total calories as protein. Carbohydrates should be 40 - 65% of total calories, and sugar content can vary widely, as it will all be consumed by the pending exercise. Overall, this is a snack that is low in fat and fiber for speedy digestion, and high in carbs and protein for immediate fuel. Meal replacement bars should be higher in calories, range from 250 - 450. Fat content can be up to 15 grams, and primarily unsaturated. Fiber should also be higher, in the range of 5 - 7 grams. Protein should make up 15 - 35% of total calories. Carbs can again be 40 - 65%, but low in sugar (6 - 12 grams) and higher in complex carbohydrates. Since this is in lieu of a "real" meal, it should resemble the structure of our general nutrition. We want this bar to be high in whole grains, proteins, natural sugars, and healthy fats. Healthy snack bars will have fewer calories than a meal bar (100 - 250 calories). Fat is somewhere between the first two bars, at up to 10 preferably unsaturated grams. Fiber is high, with more being better. Protein should fall between 8 to 20 grams, and carbs between 10 to 35 grams. This bar should contain fiber, fat and protein to be more filling, whereas its sugar content should be none to little. Refined sugar stimulates more appetite! Think of this as a chance to get more vitamins, minerals, and any other nutrient you may be missing in your other meals. Some general tips to help choose a bar are these: Avoid ingredients like sugar, corn syrup, fructose, glucose, highly refined grains like white flour, and saturated fats. The key is to find a bar that does not contain these ingredients…but doesn't taste like unflavored dog food! Be careful to avoid bars with unknown herbs added; you don't know how your body may react. Guarana, for example, contains twice the caffeine of coffee - explaining its presence, of course, in "energy" bars. When trying a new bar, pay special attention to how you feel 30 to 60 minutes after consuming it. The bottom line is to read labels carefully and to look for natural ingredients. There are bars made almost entirely of dried fruits and nuts; they are more expensive but the ingredients are simple and whole. Yes, an energy bar can serve an occasional purpose as part of your total nutritional intake. Choose carefully but keep in mind that there is no good replacement for a well-balanced wholesome meal. Healthy eating to you all! Dr. Alan Frischer is former chief of staff and former chief of medicine at Downey Regional Medical Center. Write to him in care of this newspaper at 8301 E. Florence Ave., Suite 100, Downey, CA 90240.
********** Published: August 26, 2010 - Volume 9 - Issue 19