Photo Credit:
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Are Energy Bars Good for You?

Buyer beware: Some of these snacks may not be as nutritious as you think
Written by 
Canyon Ranch Staff
Updated on: 
December 3, 2013

You can’t be in a gym or grocery checkout line without seeing stacks of colorfully packaged energy bars promising to fill you up or add power to your next workout. They may taste good and give your body a quick burst of fuel (especially useful for athletes), but in some cases you could be eating as much sugar and calories as a candy bar.

Put simply, energy means calories, so any food that contains calories is technically an ‘energy food.’ But not all energy is created equal. Some bars are made with wholesome ingredients—wheat, nuts, honey—but others are packed with high fructose corn syrup, saturated fat and hydrogenated oils.

More: Eating for Energy

Here are some suggestions from Canyon Ranch nutritionists to help you make good choices.

Read the Ingredient List
Do you recognize all the words in the ingredient list? If not, or if the list takes up more than half the package, find another option. Products made of natural, whole foods are more nutritious. Look for ingredients like rolled oats, nuts and dried fruits.

More: Your Guide to Reading Food Labels

Pay Attention to Calories
Energy bars are tasty, easy-to-find and portable, but they are also calorie-dense; choose one that exceeds 200 calories before you hit the gym and you may wind up consuming more calories than you burn.

Sidestep Bad Fats
Some manufacturers include hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils in their bars. This means that the oils, such as coconut, palm and corn, have been heated at high temperatures to give them a solid consistency. That’s good for maintaining shelf life, but these types of fats can cause health concerns like weight gain, high blood pressure, clogged arteries and more. 

Pass on HFCS
Refined sweeteners such as high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) race through your body and give you a super-fast jolt of energy, but often leave you depleted a short time later. And because they can actually inhibit your ability to feel full, eating them can lead to cravings for more of the same. In addition to HFCS, it’s wise to beware of bars containing these ingredients: sugar alcohols, sorbitol, xylitol, mannitol, maltodextrin, sucralose and artificial colors.

Don’t Overdose on Vitamins
Skip energy bars that are fortified with vitamins and minerals. If you’re taking a multivitamin or if you drink fortified orange juice, you could max out on your daily vitamin intake, which can have harmful effects.

Don’t Forget About Real Food
Bars don’t provide as many nutritional benefits as a well-rounded meal, so don’t use them as replacements. If you do eat them, make sure you’re getting balanced nutrition from the rest of your diet.

Eat with Caution During a Workout
Though energy bars don’t have this effect on everyone, they can cause diarrhea during exercise sessions in some.

Reference(s) 
The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (April 2004)
Center for Science in the Public Interest
Mayo Clinic
National Institutes of Health: MedlinePlus
U.S. Food and Drug Administration