Ingredients to look for: whole grains (rolled oats, whole wheat flour, wheat bran), fruit, nuts
Ingredients to avoid/limit: added processed sugars (sugar, brown sugar, high fructose corn syrup, corn sugar, syrup, etc.) artificial ingredients/flavorings, hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils, palm or palm kernel oils, enriched (as opposed to whole) grains, shortening
- Whole grains should be a first ingredient in a granola bar
- Aim for a bar with no more than 2g of saturated fat and 0g of trans fat
- Try to avoid bars with a lot of added sugars
- Aim for granola bars with at least 3g of fiber
- Fiber and protein keep you fuller longer
Guidelines for Choosing an Energy Bar
1. Keep in mind that there is nothing magical about energy bars when it comes to providing energy. Any food that contains calories will provide energy (i.e. a piece of fruit, a yogurt, nuts …. and yes, even a candy bar!) Of course, some foods are more nutritious than others. Also, keep in mind that the more processed a food is, the quicker the rise and drop of energy levels. An example of this would be a bar that contained a lot of sugar and very little fiber.
2. Energy bars vary widely in calories, fat, fiber, sugar and protein. Make sure you scrutinize the food label. Eating a 300 calorie bar prior to your workout could negate the calories that you burn off in your 30 minute run! In addition, make sure you check how many servings are in each container. For example, some granola bars actually contain 2 servings per package.
3. Look for a bar that has at least 3 grams of fiber, preferably more. Fiber can slow the rise and fall of blood sugar. However, if you are heading out the door for a run, you don’t want a bar that is loaded with fiber. Save the Fiber One bar with 9 grams of fiber for another time!
4. If you will be eating the bar as a snack, look for one that is 125 – 200 calories. A women might want to aim for 150 calories, while a man could have 200 calories. If your favorite bar has more calories than this - eat 1/2 of it.
5. Many bars tend to contain large amounts of sugar. Look for one that contains 15 grams or less. The less sugar, the better. The exception would be if you were planning on doing a long workout, such as a 10 mile run or 30 mile bike ride. Your body needs some sugar for energy.
6. Check out the ingredient list for added vitamins and minerals. If you know your diet is low in calcium, choosing a bar with added calcium can be helpful. On the other hand, keep in mind that more isn't necessarily better when it comes to vitamins or minerals!
7. Look for a bar that doesn't contain a lot of saturated fat. High amounts of saturated fat can raise cholesterol in some people. Many of the lower carb bars contain 3 grams of saturated fat or more. Ideally you would want a bar that has 2 grams or less of saturated fat and NO trans fats.
8. Determine what kind of bar will best suit your needs.
- Before a moderate cardio workout (one hour or less): If it has been several hours since you have eaten, find a bar that is moderate in calories, 150 or so, and contains mainly carbs.
- Before a long cardio workout (60 minutes or more): choose a high carb bar with 30 grams of carbs or more, preferably at least 40 grams if you will have a long workout (90 minutes plus). In this case, aim for 30-60 gm of carbs per hour.
- Pre or post weight training workout: look for a bar that contains at least 10 grams of protein, in addition to some carbs. If you will be having a meal soon after your workout, no need for a bar! Also, keep in mind that most people don't need the large amounts of protein found in some high protein bars (i.e 30 grams) - unless you are using the bar for a meal replacement.
- Meal replacement (this is ok on occasion!): look for one that contains more protein (at least 15 grams, ideally more) and calories (300 or so).
- Satisfy a sweet craving: Keep the calories low; a mini bar would be a perfect choice.
- Bar to boost fiber intake: Look for a bar with 5 or more grams of fiber.
- A snack to tide you over until your next meal: A balanced bar with more protein and/or fat will help to hold you longer.
9. Listen to your body. Find one that is tasty and makes you feel good after eating it. If your favorite tasting bar exacerbates carb cravings or upsets your stomach, find a new one! Keep in mind that many low carb or protein bars contain sugar alcohols (ie. sorbitol) for sweeteners. Sugar alcohols can cause gas and bloating in some people.
10. Don't be fat phobic. Fat (in addition to protein) actually helps to slow the rise and fall of blood sugar and can keep you feeling full longer. This is very important for people who are carb cravers. The key here is to make sure the fat is coming from a healthy source, like nuts, versus saturated fat.
11. Lastly, while energy bars are a convenient snack, keep in mind that they are not a replacement for real food. Real food provides you with additional nutrients that are not found in processed foods. I would not recommend getting into the habit of eating energy bars on a regular basis. They should mainly be used as a back up when you can't get to real food!
Sugar by any other name is still sugar- honey, syrups, molasses, malt, maltose, corn syrup, corn sweetener, fructose, sucrose, cane juice, dextrose, fruit juice concentrate. Be aware of multiple sources of sweeteners.
My favorite ways to pick a healthy snack bar are to look for simple, whole foods ingredients, assure the bar contains 20 grams or fewer of carbohydrates and I also use an easy formula from the fat loss experts at Metabolic Effect: Take the total carbohydrate grams and subtract the fiber and protein grams, the number you get should equal 15 or less.
One variety of Kind Bar, for example, has simple, easily identifiable ingredients and the total carbs are 20grams; subtracting the 4 grams of fiber and 5 grams of protein gives you a final number of 11- that fits the bill!
If your goals are fat loss, weight control, or blood sugar balance be aware that not all "healthy" bars will help you meet that goal. There are a plethora of healthy, raw, and superfood bars that are very high in carbs and too low in protein.
Many granola bars although marketed as “healthy” are simply glorified candy bars. Just because the wrapper says hearty, harvest, whole grain, slim and/or healthy doesn’t mean they are good for you. Many provide little nutrition yet lots of empty calories.
Follow these simple guidelines to choose the best bar and stay on track with healthy eating:
- Calories – Aim for less than 200 calories if you are eating a bar between meals and about 300 calories if you are using it as a meal replacement. These calorie ranges should keep you satisfied through your next meal.
- Fiber and Protein – Bars laden with sugar and with little fiber and protein are burned by the body more quickly, and hunger soon returns. Look for bars with at least 3 grams of fiber and 5 grams of protein per serving. This nutritional mix will help to keep you full without adding extra calories.
- Fat – A little bit of fat goes a long way. Look for bars with less than 5 grams of total fat (especially if it is a snack), less than 2 grams of saturated fat and 0 grams of trans fat per serving.
- Sugar – Look out for the hidden sources of sugar present in the following ingredients: high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, sucrose, fructose, honey, rice syrup, barley malt syrup, concentrated fruit juice and corn syrup!