Monday, October 31, 2011

Choose the Right Sports Bar

I want to start this off first by saying that even though studies have shown that sports bars are effective before, during and after an exercise bout, sports bars have their place.  They should only be used when it is less convenient to eat real food.  Imagine continuously peeling a banana while riding a bike, some people can do it, but they would definitely be more efficient if it only took one hand to eat it.  Secondly, even if a sports bar was made with real fruit, grains, etc., that doesn't take away from the fact that they were man made- there are still preservatives that must be added to increase its lifespan.  So please follow these two rules:
  1. Only eat sports bars that were designed to be eaten during exercise
  2. Choose sports bars which were made with the most real food
Generally sports bars will fall under two categories, high carbohydrate and moderate to low carbohydrate.  Sports bars which are classified as high carbohydrate have carbohydrates that make up greater than 60 percent of the total calories.  Minimal to low carbohydrate bars contain carbohydrates that make up 20-55% of the total calories and balanced calories from fat and protein (~22-40% each) (1,2).

Bars with higher amounts of carbohydrate may be consumed before, during and after an endurance workout.  By eating a high carbohydrate bar before a workout, blood glucose will rise enough to make the carbohydrates readily available for the muscles.  Once the workout has been going for approximately two hours, muscle glycogen may become nearly depleted.  To prevent this from occurring, a high carbohydrate bar should be consumed to raise blood glucose levels and spare the glycogen stored in the muscle.  After the workout is completed, a high carbohydrate bar may be consumed to replenish the carbohydrates which were burned from the workout.  Again, there are better real alternatives to eat before and after a workout.

In terms of glycogen replenishment, the right combination of protein and carbohydrate is more effective than carbohydrates by itself.  This is why studies have found that chocolate milk is very effective for recovery.  It has the right amount of carbohydrate and protein to promote optimal recovery.  No bars, gels or sport drinks have been shown to be better than simple chocolate milk, so save your money on expensive sports supplements and pick up a gallon or two of chocolate milk!

Because fat and high amounts of protein take longer to digest, avoid sports bars that have a lot of these nutrients.  For the same reason, try to avoid sports bars which are high in fiber because it is also harder to digest (3).  No one wants to feel like they are about to sound or smell like a broken exhaust while they are exercising... unless they were planning to drop the competition!

Here is the criteria for sports bar during exercise (Plowman, 2011) :
  1. Protein: < 8-10 g
  2. Fiber: < 5g
  3. Fat: < 4g per 230 kcal serving OR < 15.7% of total calories
  4. Carbohydrates: > 60% of total calories
Remember to drink at least 12-16 oz. per bar to account for the sport bar's lack of water content and make digestion easier!

I listed some of the bars I've tried.  Anything highlighted in blue does not meet the criteria above.  For a complete list, see my post which compares several of the most popular sports bar brands, Comparing The Most Popular Sports Bars.

Clif Bar Chocolate Brownie (1oz / 28g):
  • Calories: 100/ Calories from fat: 15
  • Fat: 2g = 18 kcal = 18%
    • Saturated fat: 0.5g
    • Trans Fat: 0g
  • Carbohydrates: 18g = 72 kcal = 72%
    • Sugars: 9g
    • Other Carb: 7g
  • Protein: 4g = 16 kcal = 16% kcal
  • Fiber: 2g
    • Insoluble Fiber: 1g
Powerbar Pure & Simple Long Lasting Energy Bar (1.23oz / 35g):
  • Calories: 130/ Calories from fat: 25
  • Fat: 2.5g = 22.5 kcal = 17.3%
    • Saturated fat: 0.5g
    • Trans Fat: 0g
  • Carbohydrates: 23g = 92 kcal = 70.8%
    • Sugars: 10g
  • Protein: 5g = 20 kcal = 15.4% kcal
  • Fiber: 2g

  1. Applegate, L.: Taking the bar. Runner's World. 33(10):24-28 (1998)
  2. Manore, M. M: Energy bars: PIcking the right one for you. ACSM's Health and Fitness Journal. 4 (5):33-35 (2000).
  3. Plowman, Sharon A., and Denise L. Smith. Exercise physiology for health, fitness, and performance. 3rd ed. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer Health/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2011. Print.
  4. Nutritional information was taken from actual products.