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Diet and Nutrition

Energy Bars: Better than a Candy Bar?

Feeling sluggish and worn out from sitting at your computer hour after hour? Need an energy boost? How about an energy bar? Energy bars are being marketed heavily and a multitude of brands are available in supermarkets, drug stores, and health food stores. They are often promoted as a quick snack, a meal replacement, or a supplement for your workout.

First of all, let's define energy. In scientific fields, such as the field of nutrition, the word energy means calories. So if the label says energy bar, it contains calories. It does not necessarily mean that it will make you feel energetic.

Looking at the history of energy bars, the first ones, marketed about 20 years ago, were taffy-like high carbohydrate, low fat bars that contained high-fructose corn syrup and fruit juice concentrates with some added vitamins and minerals. These bars were intended to be used by marathon runners, to supply the carbohydrate needed during an endurance event. Then manufacturers began to add oats, nuts, and fruit so that energy bars now resemble granola bars or cookies.

The nutrient value of energy bars varies widely, with some of them containing generous amounts of carbohydrate and others containing more protein. High carbohydrate energy bars may contain as much as 45 grams of carbohydrate, while high protein brands may contain 35 grams of protein. Although protein needs increase with exercise, particularly strength training, you can easily get enough protein from food sources throughout the day.

Research has shown that the performance of endurance athletes (such as those who are running, cycling, or cross-country skiing for more than an hour) may be enhanced by a supply of carbohydrate, whether that carbohydrate is from a bagel or an energy bar. The amount and type of carbohydrate are important, not the source. And if you are not an endurance athlete, extra carbohydrates are not beneficial to your workout.

The major advantage of energy bars is convenience ... getting your nutrients in a nicely wrapped, compact bar. But it certainly is not the thriftiest way to get those nutrients. And even more importantly, if you are using the bars as a meal replacement, you may be missing out on many nutrients, fiber, and phytochemicals that are in whole foods, but not in energy bars. If you are grabbing an energy bar as a snack, remember that most 2-ounce bars contain 200 to 300 calories ... about the same as a candy bar! A fresh fruit or vegetable would be a wiser snack choice!

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Last Reviewed: Jan 24, 2011

Bonnie J Brehm, PhD, RD Bonnie J Brehm, PhD, RD
Professor of Nursing
College of Nursing
University of Cincinnati