Energy or Candy? The Bar Facts

Energy or Candy? The Bar Facts

One morning recently I ran into Smuin Ballet member Erin Yarborough digging through her dance bag before class. She pulled out an energy bar, took a bite, and complained that she'd be hungry by the end of barre. I wasn't surprised. Have you ever wondered what's in an energy bar? And whether you're snacking on candy or real food?

Dancers need to eat often to keep their energy up, but breaks between classes and rehearsals tend to be short. Energy bars make handy snacks, but many dancers use them as a meal substitute. That can work occasionally, but all energy bars are not created equal. Some, typically those that are more than 200 calories per bar, are formulated to provide the nutritional equivalent of a meal. They don't, however, contain the complete range of nutrients you should be eating daily. Nevertheless, during a busy season many dancers fall into the habit of gulping one down as breakfast, lunch, and sometimes even dinner.

Energy bars first appeared back in the 1980s with the Power Bar, a snack for training athletes. By now there are dozens on the market, and the range of their ingredients is staggering. Many have 10 to 15 grams of protein, the same as a cup of lowfat yogurt, but many also have more than 15 grams of sugar. Take a look at what's in your favorite. Don't be surprised if you see high fructose corn syrup the biggest ingredient listed (by law the label must list ingredients from biggest to smallest). While corn syrup isn't inherently bad, you want to beware of energy bars that list as their initial ingredient cane juice, malt extract, or fructose. Bars that you use as a meal substitute should contain protein, carbohydrate, and fat in a ratio of 40/40/20. They also should have plenty of fiber and little saturated or trans fat.
Most energy bars have some kind of sugar--fructose, sucrose--just to make the bar palatable. And your body needs sugar throughout the day to function. Ideally, you would eat complex carbohydrates, such as vegetables and whole grains that break down slowly, releasing glucose into your bloodstream over a period of time, and providing your body with a steady generation of energy rather than a burst. If your energy bar has sucrose, which breaks down rapidly, as its leading ingredient, you're munching glorified candy.

Try to find a bar with whole food ingredients like oats, nuts, or dried fruit, recommends Nancy Clark, a nutrition counselor at Boston's SportsMedicine Brookline. (It's easier for your body to absorb necessary minerals and vitamins from whole foods rather than processed.) Ignore bars that boast of low "net carbs," a concept most nutritionists deem misleading. If you need to avoid sugar because you're diabetic or have blood sugar problems, look for labels with substitutes such as Stevia. They add sweetness without causing a spike in blood sugar.

The calorie-wary may want to opt for energy bars formulated for dieters. Don't be seduced by a name, however. Kashi Go Lean Crunchy's Chocolate Peanut Bliss has 170 calories per bar. Keep in mind a plain Hershey's chocolate bar has 200. Other alternatives include Lärabars, which have no added sugars, fillers, supplements, or flavorings. There are organic options too, like Clif Bars, but they tend to have higher fat content.

But organic or not, the government's new nutritional guidelines recommend five portions a day of fruit and vegetables, and energy bars can't take their place. If taking in all that fiber seems hard to manage, log onto, the government's nutrition website. You'll find a wealth of suggestions for ways to up your vegetable and fruit intake and recipes for healthy snacks.

That doesn't mean you have to give up your energy bars. Just remember they're not miracle food. Regular unprocessed whole food will always yield more nutrients and caloric efficiency. Fit your energy bar consumption into a balanced eating plan, and then good nutrition won't be sacrificed to convenience.

PHOTO (COLOR): Bars with fewer calories, like Luna's, work best as snacks.

By Suzanne Martin, MA, DPT

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