Do you feel overwhelmed by how many protein/energy bars there are on the market?! What ingredients should you be looking for? Which should you try to stay away from? Today I’ll be sharing some tips to make your shopping a whole lot easier!
Navigating the Food Label
NUTRITION FACTS – This is where macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fat) and their amounts are listed on the back of the label. While all three of these macronutrients are important, the necessary amounts vary from person to person depending on health status, lifestyle, and activity level. Certain micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) are also listed on the food label. If a food contains 10-19% of the daily value of a nutrient, like Vitamin C, it is considered to be a “good source”. If it contains 20% or more, it’s considered an “excellent source”. Look for bars with at least 4 grams of protein (ideally >10 grams), and if you plan to use it as a pre or post-workout snack, at least 20 gramsof carbohydrates.
THE INGREDIENT LIST – Before I look at the nutrition facts, I first inspect the ingredients. This will tell you where those grams are coming from. For example, are the grams of sugar coming from whole food sources like dates? Or from refined sugar and corn syrup? And are the fats coming from whole food sources like nuts and seeds? Or hydrogenated oils?
I recommend avoiding bars marketed as being ‘low carb’ or ‘low sugar’ before workouts as they often contain artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols, and synthetic fibers that can cause GI issues (bloating, gas, diarrhea) mid-workout. Tolerance level of artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols will vary depending on the athlete.
Ingredients are listed in order by weight. Heavier, denser ingredients will be listed first followed by lighter ingredients. For example, ½ cup of brown rice syrup weighs the same as 2 cups of oats, so even if a product uses more oats than brown rice syrup, the syrup will be listed first due to weight.
Look for Whole Food Ingredients
What’s it mean when I say look for ‘whole food’ ingredients? Here are some examples:
Dried unsweetened fruits
Whole-grain sources like oats, brown rice
Brown rice protein
Whey Protein Isolate – Whey is derived from dairy. Whey protein isolate has a higher protein to carbohydrate/fat ratio compared to whey protein concentrate. Thus, making whey protein isolate a higher quality protein source.
HEALTHY FATS –
Nut butters (ex: peanut butter, almond butter)
Ingredients to Avoid
Gastrointestinal issues may occur when a product contains additives and artificial sweeteners, preservatives, etc. This is especially true for athletes suffering from digestive disorders such as IBS.
Ingredients I recommend avoiding include:
HYDROGENATED OILS – Used to extend shelf life, this type of fat has been shown to increase LDL (“bad”) cholesterol while actually lowering your HDL (“good”) cholesterol, and have been linked to cancer. You find hydrogenated oils in products like packaged cookies, candy, crackers, etc. but can also see these oils in performance bars. Instead look for monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats like nuts, seeds, and nut butters.HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP & ADDED SUGAR – It’s important to know that sugar has many, many names – there are over 60synonyms for added sugar. Again, it is important to read the ingredient list because companies and manufacturers will use multiple names in an attempt to disguise how much sugar is in their product.
ARTIFICIAL SWEETENERS & SUGAR ALCOHOLS – Companies can get away with labeling their product ‘sugar-free’ or ‘0g added sugar’ by using artificial sweeteners (Sucralose, Aspartame, Acesulfame Potassium) and sugar alcohols (Erythritol, Xylitol). Artificial sweeteners in excess can have a negative impact on the gut microbiome, which plays a major role in your immune system and brain health. Instead, opt for energy bars with sugars such as honey, brown rice syrup, coconut sugar, or date sugar.
SYNTHETIC FIBERS– Synthetic fibers like soluble corn fiber and inulin may also lead to GI distress, especially in athletes with IBS. Fiber is essential for proper digestion and maintaining blood sugar levels. Opt for natural sources like fruits and vegetables, oats, flax seeds, and chia seeds.
A few brands to check out that I often recommend to clients include:
GoMacro, Larabar, RXbar, Perfect Bar, Health Warrior, EPIC, and Picky Bars
Energy bars definitely come in handy for athletes trying to put on weight! With how calorie-dense most bars are, it’s an easy way to get more calories in without feeling overly full. Just 2 Perfect Bars = 640 calories! But you can also see now why eating too many can make weight loss more difficult.Bars can be a convenient snack between meals, when you’re on-the-go or pre/post-workout, but they shouldn’t replace an entire meal and I don’t recommend them for every snack multiple times a day. Opt for whole food snacks like a banana with peanut butter, or an apple with hard-boiled eggs.
Angie Asche is the owner of Eleat Sports Nutrition. She is a registered dietitian, sports nutritionist, and personal trainer that provides nutrition counseling virtually to professional athletes across the country. You can follow her on social media here.