Choosing energy bars: can you believe the hype?

Energy bars are portable, convenient and ready to eat. But is this really a healthy choice or just a glorified chocolate bar?

A food whose presence is growing in the grocery store is the energy bar.

Energy bars are portable, convenient and ready to eat. Choosing one, on the other hand, can be daunting – you quickly grab an appealing package and hope for the best. But is this really a healthy choice or just a glorified chocolate bar?

Energy bars have some significant drawbacks: they can be expensive and contain excessive calories and sugar. They are often heavily supplemented.

While this makes the bar appear very healthy, it can lead to excessive nutrient intakes, especially if you are eating more than one daily or take other fortified foods or multivitamin supplements. Some energy bars (especially low-calorie, low-carb bars) contain sugar alcohols, such as maltitol, which can cause bloating, gas or diarrhea in some individuals.

An important question to ask yourself before choosing a bar is, why am I eating this bar? A snack? Meal replacement? Workout fuel? With that in mind, here are some guidelines.

A snack: Many energy bars are similar in calories to a chocolate bar, and may not be the best choice for someone trying to lose weight. If you are looking for a snack bar, choose one with 150 to 200 calories, at least 2 grams of fibre, less than 12-g of sugar and less than 5-g fat, no trans fats.

Meal replacement: if you need a quick lunch, adding some raw veggies or a glass of milk can help round out the energy bar. Meal replacement bars can be a bit more caloric (200 to 300 calories), but still look for one that contains more fibre (3 to 6 g) and less sugar (under 20g) and fat (under 7 g).

Workout fuel: Energy bars may not the best choice for working out. Protein, fat, fibre and sugar alcohols can delay stomach emptying and slow digestion, causing abdominal discomfort, cramps and poor energy levels.

Before exercising, a mostly carbohydrate food would be your best choice. During a high-intensity workout, eating an energy bar could divert blood flow from the muscles to the stomach for digestion, impairing performance. Therefore, a sports drink or gel is a better choice to boost energy levels, hydrate and balance electrolytes in the body during a longer event. If you are doing a low-intensity, endurance activity, such as hiking or a long bike ride, energy bars may be an appropriate choice.

Next time you are in the store, remember that while there is room for energy bars in a healthy diet, they are not magical and should not be used regularly as a replacement for whole foods in your diet.