Running Nutrition ENERGY BARS: PICKING THE RIGHT ONE FOR YOU!!

By Kelly Aleman, RD/LD

Brought to you by Florida East Coast Runners

Energy bars have taken the sporting world by storm. PowerBar, the first sport/energy bar on the market, was formulated in 1983. It was designed as a convenient food for serious endurance athletes who needed extra energy to fuel them during a workout or race. The bars were high in carbohydrate with minimal protein and fat and taste was not a top priority. Over the past 15 years, energy bars have moved from the shelves of cycling and running shops to the shelves of grocery and convenient stores. In addition, manufacturers have begun to focus more on taste and nutritional content since consumer interest is growing. As the market grows, its sophistication has grown as well. Today's market includes not only energy bars for athletes but protein bars, low carbohydrate bars, high carbohydrate bars, nutritional bars, soy-protein bars, meal replacement bars, low glycemic bars, food bars, medical bars and the list goes on.

Therefore, many questions often arise: How nutritious are energy and sport bars? Do they help meet the energy needs of active individuals and athletes? Are they a nutritious, convenient snack/meal replacement or just candy bars in disguise? The following article will help answer some questions regarding energy bars and hopefully help you decide the appropriate bar for you and your needs.

ENERGY NEEDS FOR ACTIVITY
Energy bars come in a wide range of sizes, calorie levels, and composition (carbohydrate, fat and protein content). It is well documented in the literature that active individuals need carbohydrate to fuel the brain and muscles during exercise and then need to replace their muscle glycogen after exercise. Therefore, athletes need to consume energy bars that are high in carbohydrate during exercise. Bars with higher amounts of protein and fat will not provide an athlete with the fuel necessary to prevent fatigue and maintain blood glucose levels. In addition, bars with higher amounts of protein and fat will slow digestion and an athlete may experience gastrointestinal distress while exercising.

In addition to higher carbohydrate needs, athletes also have slightly higher protein requirements than their sedentary counterparts. The higher protein needs of athletes have prompted manufacturers to boost the protein content of their products. However, protein is not normally used as a fuel source for activity so a high protein bar would not be a good choice prior to exercise or during exercise. But, protein in combination with carbohydrate has been found to be beneficial in helping enhance muscle glycogen repletion after exercise. Therefore, it would be appropriate to choose a bar that contains more protein in addition to carbohydrate after exercise to satisfy this need for both protein and carbohydrate.

Athletes also require adequate amounts of fat, but fat consumed during exercise is not readily available for energy. Also, fat takes longer to digest so once again an athlete may experience discomfort with a high fat bar. Therefore, athletes should choose bars that contain less fat (3-4g or less) when used prior to exercise and during exercise.

PICKING THE RIGHT ONE
Energy bars can offer the athlete or active individual a convenient way to get the extra energy they need before, during and after exercise. It is important for the athlete to experiment with different brands and types of bars during training so they are aware of any possible gastrointestinal side effects. Everyone's system is different so it is important to try different brands and find what works best for you.

1) Carbohydrate is the energy of choice during exercise. Therefore, you need to look for bars that are high in carbohydrate with moderate protein and low fat. Some examples include: Kellogg's Nutri-grain cereal bar, PowerBar, PowerBar Harvest and PowerBar Essential in chocolate, Clif Bar (peanut butter), and Tiger's Milk Bar.
2) Athletes also need carbohydrate after intense exercise to replace muscle glycogen. It is also beneficial to consume protein along with the carbohydrate. Some examples include: Balance Bar, Tiger Protein Bar, Clif Luna, and PR Bar Ironman.
3) Energy bars should not routinely replace meals containing whole foods, especially fruits, vegetables, and whole grains which contain fiber, vitamins and phytochemicals. A diet rich in energy bars is often poor in variety. Remember energy bars are engineered foods!
4) If an athlete is to use the energy bar as a meal replacer you may want to look for those with more protein and fat. In addition, there are new bars on the market made with soy-protein which is showing to be heart healthy. One particular brand is the Kashi Go Lean bar which is made with soy-protein and is also a good fiber source.

WORDS OF CAUTION

1) Highly fortified bars can cause gastrointestinal distress. Athletes need to test out the products during training before using them in competition. Find what works for your body!
2) Energy bars are often high in calories. Athletes need to remember energy bars can significantly increase total daily caloric intake. Most bars contain 200-300 calories so be especially careful using them regularly as snacks.
3) Energy bars can be expensive.
4) Energy bars are not "magic". The magic about energy bars is they are pre-wrapped, portable and convenient.
5) When used in sports situations, energy bars can be handy and provide necessary fuel for exercise. But for day to day snacking and meals, choose real foods for more nutrients and variety!

We are fortunate to have someone with Kelly's credentials and experience willing to donate her time to help educate us on the important subject of nutrition. She is a registered and licensed dietician in private practice in Melbourne. Her primary counseling focus is to provide personalized exercise nutrition consultation for athletes of all abilities, regardless of their sport. Kelly is available for individual counseling by appointment at 728-7782.

Copyright 2009 by Florida East Coast Runners and Kelly Aleman.  Reproduction or reprinting without written permission is illegal.

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