Leading a hectic life can make it difficult to fit in nutritious meals or snacks. There's always the fast-food option, but by now we know that's not a good choice. That's where energy bars, nutrition bars and protein bars come in. But should they?
If you're in a pickle, it's better to eat one of these bars than to skip eating all together, especially if you are a gym-goer, said Yonka Perkins, health and wellness director of the YMCA in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., but it's not something she would suggest doing every time.
So, if you are in a rush and can't fit in a meal before your workout, grabbing a bar is occasionally acceptable. However, when doing so, Perkins suggests that you choose a bar that's as close to nature as it can be.
"You want to choose something with minimal ingredients and that is processed the least," Perkins said, "Just keep it simple."
One of the biggest problems people make when choosing a bar is not checking what's in it. "You need to look at the ingredients and decode them to really know what you are putting into your body. A rule I live by is if you can't pronounce it, don't eat it," Perkins said.
She used the example of sugar; it has so many different scientific names - sucrose, glucose, dextrose - that it's easy for people to overlook if they don't see the actual word "sugar" in the ingredients.
Saratoga YMCA nutritionist Bernadette Piniewski is on the same page as Perkins when it comes to nutrition bars. Piniewski suggests that you have a bar only when you are hungry and need a meal, not just because you are about to work out and think you need an extra boost of energy.
"What people don't always realize is that having a bar before you work out is adding a lot of extra calories to your daily intake, which only makes more work for you when you work out," Piniewski said.
Your body should already have enough energy stored for a workout. "You have at least three hours of energy stored in your liver, in the form of glycogen, before you need to do anything about it," Piniewski said. "As far as depleting glycogen stores, there is a range of one and a half to three hours depending on the length of the workout."
The depletion of glycogen stores is known as "hitting the wall," according to Piniewski, and it's not something you need to be concerned about unless you're participating in some kind of endurance activity, such as long-distance running or cycling.
"To avoid this, carb loading is effective. However, if you are going to the gym for a 30-minute workout, you really don't need to carb load with energy bars or any other carbs." Piniewski said.
Regarding protein bars, the experts say if you are trying to lose weight, it's best to leave them on the shelf.
"Most studies have shown you don't need extra protein," Piniewski said. "Americans eat about twice the amount of protein they need. You need protein, but if it were the magic key to weight loss, we'd all be underweight," she said.
So, if you're after weight loss, Piniewski suggests you look for a bar with 240 calories or fewer and use that as a meal replacement, as that is too many calories for just a snack. If you want a snack, you want a bar that is 140 calories or fewer. Not many bars meet that condition, but the FiberOne Oats and Caramel Chewy bar and SoyJoy bars are two options.
"Choosing a bar that is high in fiber will also be beneficial, as fiber tends to be successful for weight loss in the long term as it acts as an appetite suppressant," Piniewski said.
Piniewski also suggests bars contain no more that 30 grams of carbohydrates and no more than 10 grams of sugar. Perkins and Piniewski both recommend preparing your own food and snacks. "Taking the time to plan meals out is the lesser of all evils," Perkins said.