Nutrition Bars: Healthy or Hype?.
Grab 'n' Gobble
In today's on-the-run society, where sitting down for a meal is
sometimes an impossible luxury, the emergence of nutrition bars may seem to be
just what the doctor ordered. Though these pocket-sized bars once found favor
primarily with serious athletes looking for a competitive edge, now anyone who
feels the need for a nutritional boost may keep a few stashed in a purse or a
In the current bar-wars environment, there are literally
hundreds of these prewrapped and portable products competing for shelf space at
gyms, health-food stores, and supermarkets, with names ranging from PowerBar
and Luna Bar to Balance Bar and MET-Rx. But nutritionists agree that not all
bars are created equal. There are high-carbohydrate bars, protein bars, energy
bars, breakfast bars, brain-boosting bars, meal-replacement bars, diet bars,
and women-only bars. And with so much to choose from, consumers hungering for a
quick nutritional fix -- whether they're recreational athletes, workaholics
tied to their desks, or overcommitted moms with barely a moment to spare -- may
feel dizzy from all the product overkill and heavily hyped claims.
Digesting the Bar Facts
Without a doubt, grab-and-gobble nutrition bars are great for
people who race nonstop from sunup to exhaustion. "They're a convenient
alternative for someone who would otherwise be reaching for a doughnut or using
the vending machines for snacks at the office," says Liz Applegate, PhD,
lecturer in nutrition at the University of California at Davis. "But
there's nothing magical about these bars. Most of them are fine, but some are
too high in fat."
Dawn Jackson, RD, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic
Association, concurs, noting that the bars are convenient, especially when
you're physically active. "You wouldn't put a turkey sandwich in your
pocket when you go on a bike ride, but you could easily bring one of these bars
with you." However, she cautions, "some of the bars have as much sugar
and as much saturated fat as a candy bar. So use them in moderation."
Steve Hertzler, PhD, RD, assistant professor of medical
dietetics at Ohio State University, conducted a study showing that endurance
athletes may not get the sustained energy boost that they're expecting from
certain bars. In his research, he compared the effects on blood glucose levels
of two popular energy bars -- the Ironman PR Bar and the PowerBar.
Hertzler found that the Ironman PR Bar provided increases in
blood sugar levels that remained fairly steady, which could translate into
enhanced performance for endurance athletes. By contrast, the PowerBar produced
a quick rush of blood sugar, but it was followed by a rapid decline -- not much
different than occurs with a Snickers bar.
The composition of the Ironman PR bar -- 40% carbohydrate, 30%
fat, and 30% protein -- may have been responsible for its more sustained effect
on blood glucose, says Hertzler. For endurance events, he "research shows
that consuming a little bit of carbohydrate every so often during a race is
going to improve performance."
Nutritionist Nancy Clark, MS, RD, points out that anything that
provides calories will give you some energy. "Bananas give energy,"
says Clark, director of nutrition services at SportsMedicine Associates in
Brookline, Mass. "Twinkies give energy. Energy bars give energy. That's
because they all provide calories."