How to Choose an Energy Bar

When it comes to energy food, especially bars, the range of choice can be overwhelming. Even experts can't agree on a single ideal bar. Some researchers suggest carbohydrate-packed choices, while others advice a broader balance of nutrients.

Energy Bars

Think Protein

The rule of thumb in picking the perfect nutrition bar is to look for plenty of protein. A bar packing between 100 and 200 calories should have at least six grams of protein, a nutritional ingredient that provides reliable fuel for an athlete's fast-burning metabolic engine. Put in simpler terms, a good protein bar will let you keep up the speed you need without getting hungry halfway down the trail. That's because our bodies digest protein at a slow and steady pace. In comparison, a sugar-packed snack will deliver a sudden flash of energy followed by a serious crash when the fuel's all gone.

Recipe for a Great Energy Bar

Along with plenty of protein, the ideal energy bar should also have a healthy dose of carbohydrates and fat. Despite their bad reputation in weight-loss diets, these ingredients are actually essential for keeping a healthy human body in top form. Eaten in the right proportion, carbs deliver quick energy and replace lost glycogen, so your muscles can work at a top level while you're out on the trail and rebuild themselves once you're lying safely on the couch afterwards. Some of the best sources of carbohydrates in energy bars are whole grains and dried fruit.

The same logic shows that our bodies need a little unsaturated fat to keep cool while we're logging many miles on those new backpacking boots. Look for bars that get their healthy fat from nuts, seeds and peanut butter instead of palm oil or other saturated sources. Finally, choose an energy bar that offers a little fiber to help with digestion and plenty of calcium and Vitamin C on its list of vitamins and minerals.

"A lot of so-called nutrition bars can harbor stealth ingredients like hydrogenated oils, saturated fat, and sugar or sugar alcohols, and some have more calories than a brick of chocolate," Samantha Heller, a clinical nutrition coordinator at Griffin Hospital in Derby, Conn., told Women's Health magazine.

Time Your Meals

Once you've narrowed the field with this general advice, it's time to customize your final choice to match your activity.

"You need to consider when you plan to eat the bar," Tara Gidus, a sports dietitian in Orlando, Fla., told Runner's World magazine. "When you need a rapid rise in blood sugar, maltodextrin is a good choice." So for a quick boost of energy before heading out the door, choose an option like PowerBar's Fruit Smoothie Energy bar.

Experts advise a different choice if you need to add energy in the middle of a long workout. Picking a bar like Honey Stinger's Organic Stinger Waffle will deliver steady energy without producing a trademark spike-and-crash in blood sugar levels. That's because the honey contains a mix of carbohydrates including both fast-absorbing glucose and slow-burn fructose.

A third scenario is gobbling an energy bar to keep active after missing lunch. Missing a meal can derail a workout, whether it happens because of a busy schedule or long commute. On days like those, pick a high-calorie bar packed with extra fiber and protein, plus plenty of carbohydrates in the form of seeds, whole oats or dried fruit. A good choice to fit that profile is Probar's Old School PB&J.

A fourth situation that calls for a special bar is the recovery stage, after putting away your bike apparel and catching your breath. Within 20 minutes of the workout, grab an energy bar that's high in carbohydrates and has moderate levels of protein and fiber. "Postrun, these nutrients can help improve recovery and curb hunger," Gidus told the magazine. Try Hammer Bar's Cashew Coconut Chocolate Chip for a good example.

What your body needs in an energy drink

Thirsty consumers can find a whole new range of choices when they enter the next shopping aisle in search of an energy drink to wash down their hard-earned energy bar. Luckily, they can streamline their shopping by using the same nutritional logic that experts use for picking food bars. Avoid options packed with quick-burning sugar and caffeine and pick an option with extra electrolytes to help your body naturally replenish itself.