Energy bars are one of your favorite snacks for good reasons: They're tasty, convenient and relatively healthy. But with hundreds of brands and flavors to choose from, which is best? That depends.
"You need to consider when you plan to eat the bar," says Tara Gidus, M.S., R.D., an Orlando-based sports dietitian.
Before a run, for example, you want the right amount and type of carbs for an energy boost—without a trip to a porta potty. Afterward, you need more protein. Here's how to find the perfect bar for every running situation.
(If you're not into energy bars, read our list of Five Items That Give You a Boost for a list of alternatives.)
Pre- or Mid-Run Boost
You're dashing out the door for a run when you realize you haven't eaten in hours, or you're in the middle of a workout and need a quick energy boost. Grab a bar with maltodextrin. This lab-formulated carbohydrate is more quickly absorbed than other carbohydrates, so it delivers a fast hit of fuel.
"When you need a rapid rise in blood sugar, maltodextrin is a good choice," says Gidus.
It's also easier on the stomach than the concentrated glucose found in some sports drinks. Because maltodextrin is relatively tasteless, it's a useful choice when you want to avoid overly sweet gels and chews, which can leave an unpleasant aftertaste during your run.
A Good Bar: PowerBar's Fruit Smoothie Energy bar contains maltodextrin, packing 43 grams of carbs in 220 calories. Calcium and sodium help prevent cramps. And its low fiber content won't tax your stomach.
(Looking for more pre-workout food ideas? See our list of the Snacks That Boost Workout Results.)
More: How to Fuel Your Workout
Mid to Long-Run Energy
During medium- to long-mileage runs, you need easily digestible energy that won't send your blood-sugar levels on a roller-coaster ride. Pick a honey-based bar. Honey contains carbohydrates—glucose and fructose—that deliver fast and long-lasting fuel.
"Fructose is absorbed relatively slowly," says Gidus, "so its energy is released over time, while glucose is fast-acting."
Plus, studies show that consuming those two types of carbs at once increases the amount of energy your muscles can use and improves performance, says Gidus. Unlike table sugar, honey contains trace amounts of B vitamins, calcium, and iron.
A Good Bar: Honey Stinger's Organic Stinger Waffle layers honey between two thin cookies, providing 21 grams of carbs and four percent of your daily need for iron—responsible for creating hemoglobin, which transports oxygen to your hard-working muscles.