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Energy for Sale

Energy products abound: in drinks, herbs, bars, and even goo. But do they do anything?
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Energy Bars and Gels continued...

Yet the bars, goos, and ices are no substitute for real food. "Energy bars are manufactured products," says Cindy Moore, MSRD, director of nutrition therapy at  Cleveland Clinic. "What you're missing from any kind of manufactured product are the benefits from nature -- the chemicals that aren't vitamins or minerals, but are phytochemicals -- which are still beneficial to our health."

Phytochemicals are natural plant compounds like carotenoids, which give fruits and vegetables color, isoflavones from soy, and polyphenols from teas. They have been linked to many things from killing viruses to reducing cholesterol to improving memory.

"What I would far rather see is for someone to eat a sandwich and a piece of fruit, instead of that PowerBar," says Moore. "It's still something you can hold in your hand, but you're getting the whole grain from the bread, protein from the sandwich contents -- whether that's meat or cheese or fish -- and fiber from the whole grain and from the fruit."

Add a glass of fat-free milk, says Moore, and you will also get calcium, vitamin D, and the minerals that are found in dairy products to strengthen bones.

Other convenient whole-food choices include yogurt, string cheese, nuts, ready-to-eat cereal, peanut butter, toast, smoothies, and fruits such as bananas, grapes, apples, and nectarines.

In situations where there are no choices except for junk food or fast food, energy bars may be the more nutritious alternative, but it still doesn't replace a meal, says Dee Sandquist, MSRD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

Energy products may meet the needs of the physically active. "For people who are training and exercising on a regular basis, [energy bars and gels] can actually be a useful food item to help them meet their higher energy demands," says Lisa Bunce, MSRD, owner of Back to Basics Nutrition Consultants in Redding, Conn. She says the bars and gels can be portable, palatable, and pre-measured options for some athletes. Inactive individuals, on the other hand, will not benefit from high-calorie products.

To determine whether an energy bar, gel, or ice is right for you, consider your body's needs. Are you physically active? Sedentary? Next, compare the nutrient labels of different products. Pay attention to the amount of calories, protein, carbohydrates, fiber, fats, vitamins, and minerals.

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