We spend more than $1.5 billion each year on food bars—carbo hydrate, protein, meal-replacement, even gender-specific. Is the dough being spent a huge waste, or worse, creating huge waists? "The problem is, people don't count the calories they're taking in and will eat an energy bar or a recovery bar or both, then eat a meal on top of it," says Cynthia Sass, MPH, MA, RD, CSSD, coauthor of The Ultimate Diet Log. "Bars have their place," she says. "But you have to consider what kind of rider you are and what you want the bar to accomplish."
This guide outlines different bar types and how they can help, or hurt, you.
BAR: Energy (AKA Carbohydrate)
THE BASICS: The most crowded category in sports foods—it grew nearly 24 percent in 2004 alone. Easily digestible and specially formulated to deliver a big hit of carbs (about 40 grams—70 percent—of the bar's calories).
PURPOSE: Provides a steady stream of carbohydrates during your workout so you don't bonk. After your workout, such bars can replenish the glycogen that you've spent.
LOOK FOR: A high carbohydrate count and fewer than 2 grams of fiber. Your best choice is one that contains B vitamins, which are needed in combination with carbs for optimal performance.
WATCH OUT FOR: Too many calories—energy bars can pack 350 or more. Unrecognizable ingredients, especially sugar alcohols like xylitol or maltitol, which are hard to digest and can cause stomach discomfort.
BAR: Recovery (AKA Protein)
THE BASICS: High in muscle-building protein, these bars are marketed as much to the Gold's Gym bench-pressing crowd as to pedal-pushing cyclists looking for post ride and post-training recovery.
PURPOSE: Helps usher carbs back into your muscles after a hard ride, and provides amino acids to rebuild your muscles. These supplements work quickly so your body begins recovery immediately.
LOOK FOR: Quality protein in the form of whey, milk and soy. There is much debate over which is best, but many bars contain a blend, which may help deliver the benefits of each.
WATCH OUT FOR: Again, too many calories—some as many as 500. These bars are essentially a small meal—one can have as much protein as 3 ounces of chicken and as many carbs as a cup of brown rice.
THE BASICS: Usually containing ingredients purportedly good for a woman's general health—calcium, folic acid, iron, soy protein. Generally lower in calories and often the go-to choice for skinny male cyclists.
PURPOSE: Provide women (as well as smaller riders) with the vitamins and minerals they need, in a low-calorie, reasonable portion.
LOOK FOR: Bars with fewer than 200 calories. Or minibars-half-size versions of popular bars—which usually go down in 2 or 3 bites and serve up about 100 calories.
WATCH OUT FOR: Packaging waste. Unless you need the extra calcium, iron or other women-specific nutrients, you can simply cut your regular energy bars in half.
BAR: Meal Replacement
THE BASICS: These "miscellaneous" bars, whether it's because of their carb count, protein content or marketing, don't fall into other categories.
PURPOSE: An easy way to get carbs, protein, fat and calories in one convenient package. Some people use them as a prepackaged meal and a way to prevent mindless overeating.
LOOK FOR: Natural ingredients. Bars made from grains and fruits do a better job of simulating the nuances of a meal, including antioxidants, vitamins and minerals.
WATCH OUT FOR: Relying too heavily on them. Bars are a great way to fit in a meal on the go, but real food offers more variety, a wider range of nutrients and antioxidants, and will tend to be more satiating.