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Nutrition Bars: Healthy or Hype?.

Grab 'n' Gobble

WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

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 briefcase.

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."

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