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.