Health bars aren't so healthy after all

    Coming face to face with the energy bar display at the store is almost as overwhelming as running a marathon.

    High-protein bars. Low-carb bars. Meal-supplement bars.

    Sorta makes you want to go to a real bar, huh?

    As the multimillion-dollar craze continues to grow, don’t expect your choices to get any easier. Just because you find energy bars in the health food aisle at the grocery store doesn’t mean every one of these products is good for you. In fact, for most people, they’re probably not necessary at all.

    “”If you’re trying to lose weight, these things are not a good idea,”” said Dr. Teresa Moore, clinical assistant professor of exercise science at the University of South Carolina. “”A lot of (energy bars) are designed for athletic performance and enhancement.””

    Don’t be fooled by energy bar advertisements depicting physically fit people, and don’t think eating the same energy bar as the incredibly cut woman at the gym will make you look like her, Moore said.

    “”I guess people think these bars have some magic formula that will be the potion to get them the physique they’ve always wanted,”” she said.

    Energy bars range in calories from 150 to close to 300, or the equivalent of two cans of soda. A bar with 30 grams of protein contains nearly half the protein the typical person needs in one day. A bar with 40 grams of carbohydrates has as many carbs as four slices of bread.

    An elite bodybuilder might need extra protein to help with muscle recovery. A marathon runner needs the energy boost found in a high-carb bar. Someone on the go can pick up a meal-replacement bar if there’s no time for breakfast.

    But no matter what your fitness goals are, experts stress the importance of reading the label to make sure you’re getting more than just a glorified candy bar.

    Here are guidelines for picking the right bar for you.

    In general, the best bars are those low in sugar — five or six grams is plenty — and moderate in carbohydrates, in the range of 10 to 20 grams, said Chris Wooten, president of The Body Shop Personal Training.

    Taking that a step further, sugars should account for half the grams of carbs in a bar or less. For example, a bar containing 38 grams of carbs shouldn’t have more than 19 grams of sugar, said Corinne Cates, registered dietitian with Clemson Extension, in partnership with Lexington Medical Center.

    Energy bars should be eaten when you need something quick and easy and you can’t get to a place to buy real food, Moore said.

    “”I wouldn’t depend on them,”” she said.

    However, if you usually hit the vending machine for a snack, an energy bar is definitely a better choice. Just make sure you’re sticking to a low-calorie, low-fat bar with a moderate amount of carbs.

    Steer clear of those with simple sugar ingredients such as high-fructose corn syrup and glucose. You also should avoid bars containing hydrogenated oils, a source of transfatty acids, Cates said.

    Ingredients that get the green light include fiber (more than 2 grams per serving), soy protein, whole grains and oats, brown rice and flaxseed.

    Protein bars are best left to serious weight trainers, Moore said. Some bars can contain more than 40 grams of protein, too high for the average person. If you’re eating a balanced diet in which you take in 50 to 80 grams of protein every day, those extra grams are unnecessary and have a possible link to kidney problems.

    High-carb bars are best for those doing endurance activities such as marathons or triathlons. If you’re someone whose cardio consists of walking on the treadmill, you probably don’t need to carbo-load. Use your activity level to guide your caloric intake, but don’t go overboard, Moore said.

    If you’re looking to lose weight, try a low-fat meal replacement bar such as Slim-Fast, Moore said. A Slim-Fast bar has 220 calories. But if you’re eating a bar as a supplement, those are extra calories you’ll have to burn. Eating a PowerBar Protein Plus bar, for example, will add 290 calories to your day.

    “”Energy bars will not help you lose weight,”” Cates said.

    Many energy bars are large enough for two servings, so eat half and save the rest for later, Cates said. Smaller bars, those containing 150 to 200 calories, are OK to eat all at once.

    If you’re eating a meal-replacement bar, don’t eat another meal. Sounds like common sense, but Lee Lipscomb, an employee at Brickhouse Gym, says people frequently eat both.

    “”People are doing both and they aren’t getting the results they want,”” he said.

    If you do opt for an energy bar, eat it 45 minutes to an hour and a half before exercising, Wooten said. Don’t have an energy bar in the cabinet? Eat half a turkey sandwich or an apple with peanut butter to give you the energy for your workout.

    Overall, for the purposes of most people trying to maintain or lose weight, energy bars really aren’t necessary, said Steve Gandia, a certified personal trainer and owner of Iron Horse Nutrition.

    “”They are just convenient ways to get the things you need in whole foods that taste good,”” he said.

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