Energy Bars: Nutritious Meal Replacement or Sweet Treat?

Energy bars are reputed to fight fatigue, aid weight loss and enhance your workout. But are they your best choice?

By Ginny Greene, Editor

If you lead a hectic lifestyle, you may sometimes feel you need a boost. You may find yourself skipping a sit-down meal. Or perhaps you could use a pick-me-up before your workout.

The promise of a convenient dose of “energy on the go” is appealing. Better yet when it comes in flavors like chocolate fudge, carrot cake and lemon zest.

Enter energy bars. Their name is a little misleading. Let’s face it ... virtually all food contains calories, which is what supplies your body with energy. From that perspective, we can call any food an energy food — from carrot sticks to candy bars.

But energy bars — also called protein, sports or nutrition bars — may appeal to many Americans.

There can be a time and a place for these grab-and-go foods, says registered dietitian Heather Mangieri, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Just make sure you’re having them as an occasional supplement to a well-balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains to round out your nutritional needs.

“I call energy bars a ‘sometimes’ food,” Mangieri says. “The truth is, we really want you cooking, experimenting with lots of wholesome foods. You’re looking for a balance.”

The same goes for bars, she says. “How good they are for you depends on what’s in the bar. A balanced bar will have carbohydrates, protein, fat and fiber. You have to read the nutrition label.”

Look for natural sources of these nutrients. Just because the bar may brag about fiber or protein content, “it’s not necessarily a healthy food. You want fiber and protein from whole foods, natural foods — dairy, fruit and vegetables,” she says.

Some bars are “really glorified candy bars,” she says, high in refined sugars like high-fructose corn syrup. The calorie count in manufactured bars varies widely.

The best bars, though, pack in good natural proteins, like nuts, and natural sugars from raisins, dates or other fruits. They store well in a pack when you’re running, biking, hiking or camping. And they can be a good alternative to a bag of cookies or chips.

Before you eat a bar, “Know what your energy needs are,” Mangieri says. For instance, “Don’t grab a 400-calorie bar when your total calorie needs for the day are 1,500.”

Bars may sometimes be better than skipping a meal or running to the drive-thru. But they don’t compare with fruits, vegetables, beans, low-fat dairy and other real foods when it comes to meeting your nutrition needs.

“I caution people to get out of the mindset of ‘grab and go,’ because that’s not modeling a healthy lifestyle,” Mangieri says. “I mean, what happened to cooking? If you’re grabbing snacks on the run all day, you need to look into your nutrition plan. Cooking is one of the most important life skills.”

So how do you separate the reasonably healthful bars from those that are heavy in refined sugar and refined carbs? You have to read the labels.

Limit using energy bars as meal replacements. Pair them with a piece of fruit, cheese and crackers or nuts. Energy bars are not designed to give you all the nutrients you need. Also, many bars are fortified with certain vitamins and minerals.

Caffeine may be added to some sports bars to provide an added boost. Any bar containing chocolate will have small amounts of caffeine. This stimulant may enhance performance by helping the body use fat as fuel and improving alertness.

Mangieri likes to save money and control ingredients by making energy bars at home. She has several favorite recipes and shares a simple one here.

Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Bars

Makes 6 servings

1 cup peanuts, dry, roasted and unsalted
4 ounces fresh dates
2 Tablespoons semisweet chocolate baking chips

Place chocolate chips in a food processor. Grind coarsely, then transfer to a bowl. Place peanuts in the food processor. Grind, but not too finely. You don’t want peanut flour or peanut butter. Transfer to a bowl. Grind dates in food processor. They will get very sticky. Transfer to a bowl.

Mix all ingredients well. Using a piece of plastic wrap on top, press mixture into an 8 x 8 pan until flat and even. Cut into six bars. Wrap individually with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Tip: You can also cut the bars into smaller pieces and have them as fruit chews.

Nutritional information per serving:

Calories 220
Fat 13 g
Saturated fat 2.5 g
Cholesterol 0 mg
Protein 7 g
Carbohydrates 23 g
Fiber 4 g
Sodium 0 mg

Mix it up
Try making your own version by substituting other healthy ingredients, including: