What’s the biggest difference between energy bars and candy bars?
A whole lot of you have written to ask about energy bars and whether they are a good addition to your diet. First, let’s clear up a little confusion about just what kind of energy these bars provide.
Energy bars were originally developed for athletes as a convenient way to carry a concentrated source of calories (or food energy) on long work-outs. If you’re exercising really hard for more than an hour or so, you can burn through your body’s stash of stored fuel and run out of steam. The official term for this is “bonking.” Eating some carbohydrates, which can be quickly converted to muscle energy, will allow you to exercise longer and harder.
Just so we’re clear, if you’re reading People magazine on the treadmill for thirty minutes, you don’t need an energy bar to get you through your workout. But if you’re training with the U.S. swim team or biking across the Alps, you’ll probably need to refuel during the workout. Of course, you could do that just as effectively with fruit salad or a bowl of pasta but energy bars are a little easier to carry in your bike shorts.
The 3pm Energy Crisis
But what if it’s 3pm and you’re sitting at your desk feeling a little groggy? “Boy,” you think to yourself, “I sure could use some ENERGY. I know! I’ll have an energy bar!” Now, unless you skipped lunch, that's not really the kind of energy you’re looking for. You don’t need calories; you need a break, a walk, a stretch, some fresh air, or maybe even a power nap. All of these will be more energizing than a concentrated dose of carbohydrates.
But what if you did skip lunch? In that case, maybe you do need some food energy. But if you’re using a bar to replace a meal, you probably want something slightly different from an energy bar designed for use during workouts.
Bars designed for athletes, such as Cliff Bars or Power Bars, are very high in carbohydrates because that’s the sort of fuel that can be most efficiently converted into muscle energy during exercise. They may contain some protein but they usually don’t contain much fat because it takes the body a long time to convert fat to energy.
A meal, on the other hand, should contain carbohydrates, fiber, protein, and even some fat. Because fat takes longer to digest, including some in your a meal keeps you from getting hungry again so quickly. Fiber—which is useless as a source of energy—does the same thing; it keeps you feeling satisfied for longer.
So, if you’re using bars to stand in for meals, look for ones that have been designed for this purpose, such as Balance bars, or other bars with a balance of protein, carbohydrates, fiber, and fats. The nutrition facts label can help you. A bar that provides 25% of the daily value for carbohydrate but only 3% of the daily value for fat won’t make a terribly well-balanced meal.
Meal Replacement Bars
A lot of people use meal replacement bars as a dieting strategy. It’s not the herbal extracts or metabolism-boosting vitamins that make you lose weight, though. It’s that you eat fewer calories than you would if you ate a normal meal. (If, that is, you can actually eat the meal replacement bars instead of, and not in addition to, other meals.)
The other big advantage to a meal replacement bar is convenience. They don’t need refrigeration, preparation, or even utensils. In a pinch, a meal replacement bar will keep you going. But don’t kid yourself into thinking that these engineered foods are somehow more nutritious than an actual meal. For one thing, notice that they don’t make these bars in flavors like salmon and brown rice or broccoli and tofu. Instead, your “meal” choices are strawberry shortcake, peanut butter brownie, or chocolate caramel pretzel.
And that’s my biggest gripe with most of these bars: They typically contain some soy protein isolate, maybe some puffed rice or a little oat bran, and a few vitamins for good measure—but it's all held together with the nutritional equivalent of marshmallow fluff.
Don’t kid yourself: Wholesome sounding ingredients like brown rice syrup, organic evaporated cane juice, grape or apple juice concentrates, and barley malt syrup are all just forms of sugar. When these are four of the first six ingredients, that adds up to a lot of sweet stuff. And unless you’re exercising really hard, sugar serves no useful nutritional purpose.
This organic, whole-grain Toffee Almond Crunch bar I happen to have here on my desk, for example, contains 30 grams of sugar, exactly as much sugar as a Snickers bar. They also have precisely the same number of calories. And you know what? A Snickers bar tastes a lot better.
There are some low-carb bars that are made with artificial sweeteners instead of regular sugar. They contain mostly protein, fiber and fat. (This makes them almost useless as exercise fuel, by the way.) They can be used as a low-carb meal replacement, but these highly-processed bars bear about as much resemblance to actual food as a paper towel bears to a tree. But, hey, if you like that sort of thing…
Now, there are also some bars out there that are made almost entirely with whole foods like dried fruits and nuts. But now it seems to me as if we’ve sort of come full circle. Wouldn’t be just as convenient (and a whole lot cheaper) just to keep some dried fruit and nuts around?
One last tip: Many energy bars use peanut butter and as this episode is being written, there are still concerns about salmonella contamination of some foods containing peanut butter. I’ve put a link to the FDA’s page, which is being updated as new information comes out. You can also check with individual manufacturers about whether their products may be affected by the recalls.
This is Monica Reinagel, the Nutrition Diva, with your quick and dirty tips for eating well and feeling fabulous.
Have a great day and eat something good for me!
Information on Peanut Butter recall (U.S. FDA)
Bar Exam: Energy Bars Flunk (Nutrition Action Newsletter)
Energy Drinks and Food Bars: Health or Hype? (Nemours Foundation)
Energy Bars, Gels, and Sports Drinks (About.Com: Walking)
Energy Bar Comparison (Lisa Drayeer, MA, RD)