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Nutrition Bars: Healthy or Hype?.

Grab 'n' Gobble

Food vs. Bars

Most nutritionists emphasize that even when consuming nutrition bars, don't let them crowd whole foods out of your diet. For a quick snack, you may be better off eating an apple or a banana. Before an athletic competition, says Hertzler, "a bagel or graham crackers can produce a response in blood glucose levels similar to some energy bars, and they cost a lot less."

Though nutrition bars are handy, Applegate says that you may be overrelying on them if there's a growing pile of wrappers in your car. "Some people go to Costco and buy boxes of energy bars, and feel, 'I'm doing a good thing by eating them,'" she says. "They may think that these bars are better than food. But there are ingredients in foods that are missing from these bars. Just as you wouldn't want to live only on peaches or only on tuna sandwiches, you need a lot more in your diet than just energy bars."

Instead of a nutrition bar, Jackson says you can choose an alternative snack like a container of low-fat yogurt with high-fiber cereal sprinkled in it, or a fiber-rich bagel with a tomato and a small slice of low-fat Swiss cheese melted on it.

Bar-Hopping Guidelines

When you're choosing and trying out nutrition bars, a number of factors may influence your selection. For example:

  • Look for a bar that's low in fat (less than 5 grams of fat).
  • When evaluating the fiber content of bars, aim for 3 to 5 grams of fiber, says Jackson.
  • Particularly if you're watching your weight, check the calories listed on the label. For example, while a Luna Bar contains 170 to 180 calories, a MET-Rx 100-Gram Food Bar has 340 calories.
  • "If you're shopping for a meal-replacement bar, choose one that has about 15 or more grams of protein, along with some fiber, and fortified with about 35% of the RDAs for vitamins and minerals," says Applegate, author of Eat Smart, Play Hard. Meal-replacement bars tend to be larger than other bars, with proportionately higher levels of carbohydrates, fats, and protein.
  • Consume some real food along with the bar. "People can eat grape tomatoes with their bar, or a piece of fruit," says Jackson.
  • If you consume multiple bars per day, make sure you're not biting off more vitamins and minerals than you should chew. For example, a fortified bar might provide 50% of the RDA for zinc, says Clark, author of Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook. If you're eating several bars a day, plus a multivitamin/multimineral pill and a bowl of fortified cereal like Total, you could be getting much more zinc than you need, she cautions, which might interfere with the absorption of other minerals, and even weaken your immune system.

To complicate matters, you may not be able to judge every bar by its wrapper. In October 2001, when ConsumerLab.com announced the findings of its independent laboratory tests of 30 nutrition bars, 18 did not meet the claims of ingredient levels on the label. More than any other misrepresentation, about one-half of the nutrition bars exceeded the carbohydrate levels stated on the wrapper (one bar promoted as a low-carbohydrate diet product claimed it had just 2 grams of carbohydrates, but testing showed it actually contained 22 grams).

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