Energy bars are useful but not end-all to nutrition

WACO, TexasDespite other shortcomings, Waco boasts a healthy bar scene.

Protein bars, energy bars, sports bars, meal-replacement bars, bars for muscle men, bars for dieting women and even bars for kids line the shelves of local grocery stores, of health food shops and of fitness centers. Commercial diet gurus Jenny Craig and Dr. Atkins have joined the bar scene, as has Gatorade, the sports drink maker.

Most bars come in shiny packages, graffitied with promises such as high energy, mega-protein and all the benefits of soy. They're convenient, easy to handle and come in different flavors. Most bars pack 100 to 500 calories, a few fat grams, carbs, protein and fiber _ all for a price tag of 99 cents to $3.

But before going bar-hopping, you should know a few things about them, nutrition experts say.

First, all bars aren't created equal, and they don't fit into everyone's diet the same way.

"When people ask about (a sports bar) I would ask them, what reason are they taking it?" said Van Davis, fitness director for Baylor University and owner of Fitness by Van.

That's why it's important to read packages and labels, she said.

Bars that claim to provide high energy often contain carbohydrates for a quick boost and protein for sustained energy, said Christine Bain, a clinical dietitian at Scott & White Hospital. Because most bars are lower in fat than candy bars and potato chips, munching on a bar is a good afternoon snack alternative to a vending machine run, she said. And bars often provide more protein than, say, an apple, she said.

But, she said, when it comes to providing energy, bars don't work magic.

"There's nothing in it to give you energy per se," she said. "When you eat food, your body digests it to the point where it uses it for energy or body tissues. Technically, all types of food you can get energy from. (Bar makers) are just using it to imply that if you eat this bar, it's going to give you energy. Technically it is, but it's not going to turn you into Superman."

Just another carb? Bars also are good pick-me-ups for energy before an exercise session, Bain said. But research shows that other types of carbohydrates provide nearly the same energy.

Professor David Pearson of the Ball State University Human Performance Lab in Muncie, Ind., conducted a study to find out whether cyclists who ate sports bars performed any differently than cyclists who ate bagels for breakfast before a workout on an exercise bike.

His findings were reported in the November 1996 Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, and later in Prevention magazine. He found there was no recognizable benefit from the energy bar vs. a common complex carbohydrate, such as the bagel, according to the online Prevention report.

Body builders have long used high-protein bars to supplement their diets, and Davis said those who want to build muscle could benefit from the added protein in high-protein bars. But, she cautioned, serious body builders usually eat five to seven meals a day anyway.

For sedentary people or dieters, sports bars or high-protein bars might not be the healthiest snacks to choose, Davis said.

"A lot of times, they have the misconception that if they work out, they can eat those types of items," she said. "If you're working out in order to lose weight and burn calories, all you're doing is putting them back in" your body by eating the bars.

Davis suggests splitting bars, eating half in the morning and half in the afternoon, so your body burns the calories and helps you sustain energy for a longer time. Drinking water with bars will help with internal processes, such as digestion, and can help curb your appetite, she said.

Meal replacement bars may not provide as much fat and as many calories as real food, but Davis said they are meant to be a quick fix to weight loss and shouldn't be relied on for long-term nutrition.

"Any time you can take in a real chicken breast, for instance, it's much better quality of food," she said. "The quality of food you get from real food is definitely the best. From there you can take in a sports bar, if you don't have time, as a food replacement or supplement."

One more reason to read bar packages is to check the amount of sugar they contain, Davis said. Large amounts of sugar give spurts of energy, but too much can turn to fat. Bain also suggested checking for caffeine, which is a stimulant.

The bottom line to bars, Bain said, is they're often convenient sources of carbs, proteins and nutrients, but they can also be abused. Bars should not be regular substitutes for healthy snacks like fruits and vegetables, she said.

"They could be a good afternoon snack for some people who work late, who eat late, who go to the gym," Bain said. "Some have added vitamins and minerals and some have added fiber, but they're not all the same. We are a society that wants things quick and easy; we want to grab it and go. But hopefully consumers will use them in the right way."

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