Energy Bars 101

by Dave on August 22, 2009

by Lisa Harkins, RD

When choosing an energy bar, what’s the first thing you should think about? Taste? Amount of calories? Protein? Carbs? Fiber? Fats? Sugar? I say all of the above. Choosing an energy bar can seem as difficult as taking the real Bar exam…but by reading this column you’ll have enough knowledge to pass with flying colors.

First things first: Why are you eating the bar? As a meal replacement? Pre-workout fuel? Post-workout nosh? If using the bar as a meal replacement, look for at least 300-400 calories, with a generous mix of protein (20g or more), carbs (30-45g), and fats (under 10g saturated). Some examples of meal replacement bars would be the Myoplex Deluxe or the Met-RX Big 100. Don’t eat more than one of these bars a day though, because no bar can truly replace the nutrients we get from eating whole foods. I tell my clients to only consume these if they are in a pinch and there is not another healthy food option available (i.e. when traveling). In addition, if you are already taking vitamin or mineral supplements, eating a fortified meal replacement bar can give you over the recommended daily intake values for certain vitamins and minerals, which could be potentially harmful if consumed frequently (i.e. every day).

If you are looking for a good pre-workout bar, choose one with around 140-200 calories, moderate carbohydrates (about 15-30g) for sustained energy, but lower in fiber to decrease gastrointestinal distress, and moderate protein (5-10g). Bars with high amounts of refined sugars (sucrose, high fructose corn syrup) will give you a burst of energy, but if you’re working out for longer than a half-hour they may cause you to crash and burn mid-session. Bars with sugar alcohols (a.k.a. mannitol, sorbitol) are also known to wreak havoc on the gut, so taste-test one of these types of bars on a non-workout day to see how your tummy reacts. Pre-workout bars include the South Beach Cereal Bar, Luna Bar, or half a Clif Bar.

Good recovery bars will include moderate to high amounts of protein (10-20g) and moderate carbohydrates (15-30g), but should be under 250 calories (and higher amounts of fiber aren’t an issue now). You want to eat these types of bars within 15-30 minutes of your workout for maximum effect. It is recommended to eat a full meal (400-600 calories, depending on your daily needs) within two hours of your workout to continue the muscle-repairing benefit, so any bar more than 250 calories may interfere with weight loss or maintenance efforts. Some bars to choose would be the Powerbar Recovery, Pure Protein, and the Clif Bar Builder’s (although at 270 calories this bar is a little on the high side-I might eat half before my work out and half after).

Remember: some energy bars are made with trans-fats, and may contain as much sugar as a regular candy bar, so read labels carefully. All the companies whose bars I mentioned above have full nutritional information available on their websites, so check them out before you buy. Many offer sampler packs which can be helpful in determining taste, another important factor when deciding which bar to choose.

Lisa Harkins is a clinical registered dietitian with Bayhealth Medical Centers and the owner of Ideal Nutrition and Fitness LLC ( You can reach her at lisa -at-

This column from Coastal Sussex Weekly, June 25, 2009

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