Nancy Clark, the director of nutrition services at SportsMedicine Associates, offers information to help you make smart choices in the world of energy bars.
PowerBars, PRBars, Zone Bars, Balance Bars–a plethora of energy bars await you at every convenience store, each boasting its ability to enhance your performance. You can spend a fortune on these prewrapped bundles of energy, thinking they offer magic ingredients (not true). Here is some information to help you decide how much of your food budget to dedicate to these popular snacks.
- Energy bars are convenient. In today’s eat-and-run society, when meals are a rare occurrence in a busy schedule, an energy bar suits the need for many hungry people who seek a hassle-free, somewhat nutritious snack.
- Energy bars are portable. You can easily tuck these compact and lightweight vitamin-enriched bars into a pocket for “emergency food.” Energy bars are handy for runners and bikers who want to carry a durable snack on a long run or ride, or for hikers who want a light backpack.
- Energy bars promote preexercise eating. Snacking before exercising is a great way to boost stamina and endurance. The energy bar industry has done an excellent job of educating us that preexercise eating is important in optimizing performance. The associated energy boost likely does not result from magic ingredients (chromium, amino acids) but from eating 200 to 300 calories. These calories (which usually include some form of sugar) clearly fuel you better than the zero calories in no snack. Note that calories from tried-and-true fig bars, graham crackers, bananas, and granola bars are also effective preexercise energizers.
- Energy bars promote eating during endurance exercise. Energy bars are also a great way to boost stamina and endurance. Instead of relying on what you eat before you exercise, you can consume about 0.5 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight per hour during endurance exercise. This comes to 200 to 300 calories for most active people–exactly what an energy bar offers.
- Most energy bars claim to be highly digestible. One could debate whether energy bars are easier to digest than standard food, because digestibility varies greatly from athlete to athlete. I’ve heard some people comment about how a PowerBar settles heavily in the stomach, whereas others swear it is the only food they can tolerate during exercise. As with all sports snacks, you have to learn through trial and error during training what foods work for your system and what foods don’t. Do not try this pricey treat for the first time before a special event, such as a marathon, bike race, or rugby game only to discover it causes discomfort. One key to tolerating energy bars is to drink plenty of water along with the bar. Otherwise, the product will settle poorly. Energy bars have a very low water content to make them more compact than fresh fruit, for example, which has high water content.
- Some energy bars are touted as fat free or very low in fat. The claim is that they digest quickly and empty from the stomach without causing problems.
- Some energy bars boast about a higher fat content. A higher fat content supposedly promotes greater fat burning to help you lose body fat and exercise longer before you hit the wall. To date, I know of no professional research that suggests that preexercise fat enhances weight loss (see chapter 11 for more information about fat burning and weight control).
One possible advantage to including a little fat in the preexercise snack may be to provide sustained energy. A little fat can provide longer lasting energy for people who will be exercising for more than 90 minutes, such as long-distance bikers, runners, or cross-country skiers. The value of the preexercise fat will vary according to individual tolerance.
- Energy bars are expensive. You’ll have to fork over at least one dollar, if not two, to buy most sports bars. The better value is to buy low-fat granola bars or breakfast bars from the supermarket at a much lower price. A handful of raisins can also do a great job at a low price