When you’re trying to fit training into a daily life already packed with family, friends and work, you want to make things as streamlined and convenient as possible. This includes your nutrition and the good news is there is a grab-and-go option that is dominating the market right now: the nutrition bar.
With so many options, how can you be sure what you’re grabbing is the right choice for you? Besides taste testing, you’ll want to take time to do your research. Some common ingredients have gotten a bad rap over time — specifically carbohydrates and sugars — and the good news is you often don’t need to trash a pack of unopened bars just because you spy them on the ingredients list.
“There is no real reason to limit carbs in a sports energy bar,” explains Emily Edison, RD, a Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics and owner of Momentum Nutrition. “Carbohydrates provide your muscles and your brain with the energy needed to move your body and limiting them can lead to fatigue, low motivation for training and injury. Also, sugar is not the bad guy for athletes; it is converted to energy for working muscles and, when you need it, it is there for you.”
So how can you decipher the good from the bad and the necessary from the unnecessary? We talked to some experts to find out why nutrition bars have exploded in popularity and how you can be sure you are getting everything you need and very little of what you don’t.
WHY NUTRITION BARS ARE SO POPULAR
Nutrition bars are really having a moment. In fact, they often take center stage in at least one aisle of every grocery store, with shelves stocked from floor to ceiling with options. It turns out while they started out as fuel for athletes, they grew in mainstream popularity because of their convenience.
“The entire category is driven by convenience,” explains Susan Kleiner, PhD, RD, owner of High Performance Nutrition and author of eight books including her latest, “The New Power Eating” (September 2018). “I don’t think anyone would choose a bar over sitting down to a meal, but our lifestyles and lack of understanding of how simply we can actually put a snack to-go together from food that we have at home, has driven the need for convenience to grow the bar market.”
Because of this shift, Kleiner notes that bars went from high-carb, to bars with candy-like ingredients, to fewer carbs with more fat and protein and now to bars with fewer but more natural ingredients. Brands like Picky Bars, which is located in Bend, Oregon, and is fully owned by athletes, are doing the latter, making bars that don’t contain artificial ingredients that lower the nutritional value and hike up your sugar intake. They make more than a meal replacement; it’s a company focused on fueling athletes.
“We’re all for real food and our energy bars are just that — all real food ingredients but balanced for doing real work,” notes Nadine McCrindle, Marketing Director at Picky Bars. “No nasty ingredients likely to upset your gut or burn out fast, resulting in the need to grab another to keep you going.”
With all this talk of added sugars and nasty ingredients, what exactly should you be looking for as a runner shopping for a nutrition bar? The truth is not all bars are made with you in mind.
WHAT INGREDIENTS TO LOOK FOR
So what exactly should nutrition bars contain to give you the fuel you need? First, you’ll want to look for ingredients you can pronounce. Second, you’ll want to take into consideration the type of workout you will be doing.
“High-performance bars should contain carbohydrate for energy,” instructs Edison. “For sprinters and shorter distance quick athletes, look for high-carbohydrate bars that are easy for you to digest. For endurance athletes, having a balance of carbohydrates mixed with some proteins and fat tends to delay the onset of fatigue and may minimize muscle tissue breakdown, leading to faster recovery time.”
Of course, finding what works best for your stomach will take some trial and error. The more real ingredients in the bar, the better, but you’ll want to practice reading these lists to be able to identify any hidden ingredients that may be marketed otherwise.
“I think that consumers must be very wary of marketing mumbo jumbo,” advises Dr. Kleiner. “Bars can make many people gassy, especially those with sugar alcohols as sweeteners — anything ending in -ol, like maltilol, sorbitol, xylitol, etc. — and with anything containing inulin or chicory or other fibers, which can cause stomach upset or distress. Runners can’t run with these problems.”
When it comes to understanding what is in your nutrition bars you have two options: You can buy pre-made bars from companies focused on athletic performance and transparency, such as Picky Bars, or you can make the bars yourself so you know exactly what does and does not go into your fuel.
One of the best ways to take the guesswork out of energy bars is to make your own — loaded with high-performance carbs, proteins and fats while tasting good and giving you a dose of energy. Eat them several hours before a run — so you have time to digest — and then grab them again after a run to boost your recovery.
HIGH-POWER ENERGY BARS
Excerpted from “The Good Mood Diet” (Springboard Press, 2007) by Dr. Kleiner.
- 1 cup (266g) natural-style peanut butter
- 1 cup (340g) honey
- 1 cup (90g) dry uncooked old-fashioned oatmeal
- 1 cup (190g) chopped apricots
- 1/2 cup (65g) walnuts
- 1/2 cup (50g) almonds
Combine the peanut butter and honey in a large nonstick pot and heat over low heat until runny. Mix in the oatmeal, apricots and nuts. Stir until all ingredients are well coated. Coat a 9-by-9-inch pan with nonstick cooking spray. Press the mixture into the pan. Let cool, then cut into 16 equal bars.
Serves: 16 | Serving Size: 1 2 1/4-inch square bar