Should you go high carb or high protein? Which ingredients should you avoid in an energy bar? What type of bar is best before activity versus after activity? How much sugar, sodium, fat, and fiber should you look for in an energy (pre-activity) bar?
With the explosion of energy and nutrition bars on the market, and the wealth of misinformation surrounding them, it can become quite confusing to choose the right bar – and one that actually tastes good!
To clear up the confusion, we presented these questions to our Board Certified Sports Dietitian, Tracy Owens (MPH, RD, CSSD, LDN), and our Registered Dietitian/Certified Personal Trainer, Ashley Acornley (MS, RD, LDN, AFAA), to get their expert opinions.
Learn the facts about energy bars so you can feel confident you’re choosing a bar that helps you stay healthy and achieve peak performance in all that you do.
Note: The FAQs related to bar ingredients focus on bars that are eaten BEFORE activity.
Prior to any form of exercise activity, your body and muscles need the proper fuel to perform at an optimal level. You need food that is quickly absorbed and easily digested so that you feel energized and ready to go!
Look for carbohydrates
Carbs are broken down into glucose, which is what fuels your muscles for optimal energy. Eating a bar with too few carbohydrates before activity will not provide you with the energy you need for peak performance.
Choose bars with nutrient-rich sources of carbs found in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and dairy (milk and yogurt have carbs, cheese very minimal). Stay away from junk food carbs like cookies, cake, candy bars, and chips. Those are for occasional treats!
How many carbs you need depends on your lifestyle. People who exercise very little (or not at all) don’t need as many carbs as active people. But active people and athletes will see a tremendous benefit from carbs.
Don’t focus on high protein
It’s a common misconception that protein is the source of increased energy. Science tells us that protein does NOT break down as quickly or as efficiently as carbohydrates. Small amounts of protein before exercise is fine, but don’t make the mistake of thinking you need a high protein meal or a high protein bar before exercise.
Avoid fat and fiber
Fiber, fat, and protein all get in the way of carbohydrates quickly digesting into glucose, the body’s energy source. Avoid bars high in these ingredients, or you could feel slow and sluggish, and fatigue much faster than you should.
Also see: Fueling Before Activity
After your workout, practice or competition, it’s time to consume a bar to help resynthesize and repair the muscles you just worked. This means choosing a bar that has 10-20 grams of protein along with some carbohydrates to help refuel.
Consuming healthy carbs and protein within 30-60 minutes after exercise is considered the “window of opportunity” for refueling for optimal recovery. Proteins, carbs, and fats are utilized immediately in the body to repair the muscle breakdown caused during activity. If you wait longer than one hour, you can still refuel and repair but not as effectively.
If, after exercise, you cannot choose a meal with healthy sources of protein like fish, eggs, chicken and lean meats – along with healthy carb sources – a high-protein recovery bar or protein shake can help start the repair process. Once available, move on to a well-balanced meal.
Also See: Fueling for Optimal Recovery
While fat is an important nutrient for overall health, it should be limited in an energy bar. Your body absorbs fat slowly, and fat slows the absorption of carbs and protein. It does not provide quick fuel for your muscles.
Like fat, fiber is an important nutrient to have every day, but you want to avoid large amounts of it in an energy bar. Eating too much fiber before activity can leave you feeling bloated and lead to an upset stomach. So opt for bars that do not exceed 3 grams of fiber.
Sodium is important to active people because it aids in the muscle hydration process. It aids in fluid absorption, so it’s beneficial to have a little sodium in your energy bar.
There is not a specific sports nutrition recommendation for a certain amount of sodium prior to activity, and an energy bar typically will not provide enough sodium for electrolyte replacement AFTER activity. Sports beverages can help replace important electrolytes after sweating a lot during activity.
With all the hype surrounding high protein diets, bars, drinks, and supplements, carbs have taken a back seat. This is unfortunate because eating the right carbs is what fuels your muscles for activity.
Your body converts carbohydrates into glucose, which is either utilized by the body for energy or stored in your muscles and liver for future use.
Consuming carbohydrates from a variety of healthy foods allows your body to absorb healthy carbohydrates, so look for bars that contain nutrient-rich carbs found in whole grains, fruits, and/or dairy (milk, yogurt). Look for at least 30 grams of total carbohydrate.
Contrary to what you may have heard, carbs won’t cause weight gain unless you eat a surplus of calories. Weight gain is caused by consuming more calories than your body needs. This is why it’s important to eat according to how hard you are training and competing.
Sugar is a quick-acting source of energy. It can be delivered from an empty source like table sugar (sucrose) which has no nutrients, from fruits in the form of fructose and glucose, and from lactose, which is in dairy foods.
When you look at a label, you’ll see the total carbohydrates with the total sugars listed as a subcategory. With current label laws, “sugar” on the label does not differentiate between naturally occurring sugar and added sugar. It is recommended to read the ingredients to see the potential sources of the sugar.
Avoid added sugar like high fructose corn syrup which is a highly processed manufactured source of sugar. Also, beware of sugar alcohols because they can upset your stomach. They are recognized by the names xylitol, mannitol, erythritol, sorbitol. Commonly, they all end in “ol”.
When determining if an energy bar, or any food item for that matter, has “too much” sugar, it’s helpful to clarify grams of sugar and compare that to an equivalent in real food.
Keep in mind the following when reading the sugar content listed on food labels:
1 teaspoon of white table sugar = 4 grams of sugar
15 grams of sugar are equal to:
- 17 grapes
- ½ of a small banana
- 1 orange
- 8 oz. glass of milk
There are certain ingredients in some bars that may upset your stomach, so you want to be on the lookout for these ingredients. The most common include:
- Sugar alcohols – recognized by the names xylitol, mannitol, erythritol, sorbitol. Commonly, they all end in “ol”.
- Inulin or chicory root fiber (both can cause stomach pain and bloating)
Vitamins and minerals are not a direct source of energy; however, they play a major role in the chemical reaction of converting protein and carbohydrates into energy. A bar that contains a variety of wholesome, real-food ingredients will already contain a variety of vitamins and minerals.
Gluten is a general name for the proteins found in wheat, rye, barley, and triticale. People who have celiac disease must avoid gluten completely. Some people have gluten sensitivity and simply feel better when they avoid gluten.
Eating gluten-free does not provide an additional sports or activity performance benefit unless you need to eat gluten-free due to having Celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity.
There is no added energy benefit from a bar labeled Vegan. Vegan is just a way of eating that eliminates all animal-based products, but vegan athletes still need to follow sound sports nutrition guidelines.
The acronym GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organisms, which refers to any food product that has been altered at the gene level. Genetically modified foods are also frequently described as “genetically engineered”, “genetically altered” or “genetically manipulated.”
Due to the many unknowns associated with GMO products, many consumers are now choosing Non-GMO energy bars and other Non-GMO food products.
There isn’t an exact formula for choosing the size of an energy/nutrition bar. Bars typically range from 40g to 70g in total weight and contain 100 to 300+ calories.
Choosing the right bar should be based on your body size, energy needs, recovery needs, and whether you’re consuming the bar before or after activity. A 100-pound gymnast isn’t going to need the same size bar as a 275-pound football player.
If you’re over 150 pounds, you might want to combine an average size energy bar (45g – 55g) with another healthy source of carbohydrate such as oatmeal, a banana, whole wheat bread, whole grain cereal, etc. However, a 110 female soccer player looking to fuel up for the game after school could have an energy bar with some water.
Avoid eating a heavy, high-protein bar 30-60 minutes before activity. Choose a lighter bar that’s easier to digest and that will provide your muscles with readily available energy.
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