Healthy Energy Bars for Runners
Let’s face it, we can all run short of time to pack a healthy breakfast, lunch, or a pre-run snack. When the hunger bug hits and we need something quick, ideally, real, whole foods are the healthiest option.
But, who lives in an ideal world?
Sometimes, we have to go with handy and quick, and energy or protein bars certainly fit the bill, especially when compared to what you have hanging around the office. Therefore, the big question is; which one should you buy?
The grocery store isles are lined with energy bar options. Each bar toting its amazing nutritional value and energy benefits. My goal is to help you learn to filter through all the marketing hype to find a bar that would be best for you, and offers the most bang for your buck. In this article, I am going to share three must-know guidelines for evaluating the nutrition label on an energy bar and help you find the perfect fit for your needs.
What you should look for in an energy bar
First, check the sugar content. As runners we are often concerned about our health and weight, and may faithfully pass up the soda and candy bars, only to be sabotaged by the energy bar we choose. Remember that all energy bars are not created equal. PowerBar’s Protein Plus Chocolate Brownie, offers 30g of protein, and a whopping 30g of sugar. In comparison a snickers bar contains 28.8 g of sugar.
The new USDA My Plate Food Guide recommends that a person on a 1,600-calorie per-day diet only consume 6 teaspoons (tsp) of sugar a day. One PowerBar Protein Plus is 7.5 tsp alone. A better choice is a bar that has less than 14 grams of sugar per serving. The less sugar the better.
Calories and serving size
My second recommendation is to check the calories and serving size. Many of the bars on the market can easily have 500 calories or more per bar. For runners, and the average person, 500 calories may be the better part of a meal; not a snack.
Labels on the higher calorie bars might split the bar into two servings, so at first glance it appears the bar is only 250 calories, however, a closer look reveals that if you eat the whole bar, (as most of us would) you have just consumed 500 calories. Remember to take a second look at the serving size and the calorie count per serving of the bar that you choose. I suggest that the bar you choose not contain more than 250 calories per serving.
Look for real foods in the ingredient list
Finally, read the label carefully for ingredients that you do not recognize, or that do not sound like real food. For example, many nutrition bars contain sucralose, also known as Splenda. Companies add this in as an effort to keep the sugar content of the bar lower. Sucralose is an artificial sweetener that is not broken down by the body. It is made by chlorinating table sugar. A study done by the University of Duke found that daily consumption of sucralose at 1.1-11 mg/kg (the acceptable amount from the FDA is 5mg/kg) decreased good intestinal bacteria by 50%, increased intestine pH levels, and contributed to an increase in body weight.
A few other red-flag ingredients to watch for are: partially, or fully hydrogenated oils, high fructose corn syrup, other artificial sweeteners (acesulfame-K, Aspartame, Equal, NutraSweet, Saccharin, Sorbitol), shortening, artificial flavoring and artificial coloring. None of these additives are natural to our bodies, and often are not processed the same as whole foods.
Often, another indicator of an energy bar having a whole foods base is the fiber content. The higher the fiber the more whole foods are in the energy bar and decent ingredients.
Great energy bar options
After applying the above guidelines to a number of energy bars, I Have found the following bars to have 14 g of sugar or less.
Clif Mojo Bars, Chocolate Almond Coconut: 200 calories, 12g of fat, 8 g of protein, 3 g of fiber, 10 g of sugar
Luna, Blueberry Bliss: 180 calories, 5 g of fat, 8 g of protein, 3 g of fiber, 13 g of sugar
thinkThin, Chunky Peanut Butter: 230 calories, 8 g of fat, 20 of protein, 1 g of fiber, 0 g of sugar *(Contains natural sugar alcohols, which may bother your digestive system)
NuGo Slim, Roasted Peanut: 190 calories, 7 g of fat, 15 g of protein, 9 g of fiber, 2 g of sugar *NuGo Smarte Carb, Slim, 10 Cranberry, Free, & Family, are 14 g of sugar or less
Bob’s Oat Bars, Apricot** 2 servings per bar: 180 calories, 6 g of fat, 3 g of protein, 3 g of fiber, 9 g of sugar
Nutiva Hemp Seed Bar, Original: 210 calories, 15 g of fat, 7 g of protein, 4 g of fiber, 8 g of sugar
Prana Bar, Rise Energy: 210 calories, 12g of fat, 4 g of protein, 4 g of fiber, 12 g of sugar
Earnest Eats, Almond Trail Mix: 210 calories, 9 g of fat, 5 g of protein, 4 g of fiber, 14 g of sugar.
Consider your energy/activity needs
In addition to the above guidelines, also consider the type of activity you are fueling for. If it is a short or quick run, half of a bar may be sufficient. Also, a bar with more total carbohydrates will be more beneficial on a short, quicker paced run. A bar with higher carbohydrates will digest quicker and give you the energy needed within the first 30 minutes of your workout.
If you are getting ready for a long run, choose a bar that has a closer balance of carbohydrates to fat and protein. The balance of the three main nutrients will help sustain you through the duration of your run.
I hope that the next time you find yourself staring at the numerous options of energy bars in the stores; you will be better prepared to select a healthier bar that will fit your workout needs and lifestyle. Nutrition bars are a good option when time is short and life is rushed, but whenever possible make the choice of real, whole foods, like an apple and peanut butter before a run.
Clif Bar & Co.: Luna Bar Overview
Spiru-tein: Chocolate Spirutein Overview
thinkThin: Brownie Crunch Protein Bar Nutrition Analysis
Sugar Stacks: Candy
The New York Times, “New Salvo in Splenda Skirmish”. Browning, Lynnley (2008)