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How Nutritious Are Your Nutrition Bars?

By Perrin Braun, September 8, 2014

 

Do you frequently find yourself stuffing a nutrition bar into your purse or pocket before dashing out the door? You’re not alone—convenience is important for many busy people. Whether you’re seeking to add muscle, increase your stamina, or lose weight, there is a brand of nutrition bar that seems to fit every diet and exercise need. While these bars are certainly a convenient way to stock up on calories and carbohydrates, being overly dependent on these foods means that you’re missing some opportunities to add the benefits of whole foods to your diet.image

What are whole foods?

A whole food hasn’t been processed. In nature, fruits and vegetables are perfect whole foods because they contain only one ingredient—themselves. No nutrition label is needed for foods like apples, kale, and carrots. Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains have nutrients and fiber that your body needs and can utilize. However, since nutrition bars only contain parts of whole foods that have been processed (or separated) using a machine, they cannot be considered a whole food.

Is there anything lacking in nutrition bars?

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Fiber is the major component missing in many brands of nutrition bars. This nutrient helps your body to slow the absorption of sugar into the blood, works to improve your digestion, and makes you feel fuller for longer. The skins, peel, and pulp of many fruits and vegetables are naturally high in fiber, but they are typically removed when added to nutrition bars. Therefore, when you eat a nutrition bar, (many of which are high in sugar and low in fiber), your blood sugar levels rise more quickly than they would if you had eaten an apple.

A sharp rise in your blood sugar causes your pancreas to release more insulin, which can result in a “sugar crash,” or a decrease in energy. Keep in mind that many brands of nutrition bars contain much more sugar than whole foods. Ingredients on the nutrition facts label are listed in order of amount in each serving, and sugar is often the first or second ingredient on a nutrition bar label! InsideTracker can provide you with recommendations for healthy foods that are low in sugar; sign up to learn which foods are best suited for your needs. 

In addition to too much sugar many brands of nutrition bars actually contain too many vitamins and minerals! Most nutrition bars are highly fortified, which means you may be overdosing on certain nutrients, especially if you are eating more than one bar a day or are consuming other fortified products. Over-supplementation may result in some uncomfortable side effects. For example, consuming too much vitamin A can cause headaches and reduced bone strength. Excessive amounts of iron may result in intestinal discomfort. Check the label on your nutrition bar to make sure that you are not consuming too much of a certain nutrient!

What are some alternatives to nutrition bars?

If you find yourself grabbing a nutrition bar instead of sitting down and eating breakfast, there are several other options that are easy to prepare! Try some of these meals the next time you find yourself strapped for time in the morning:

Oatmeal with brown sugar, almonds, skim milk, and a banana Dried fruit and a hard-boiled egg Low-fat yogurt with granola and nuts

People often eat a nutrition bar after a workout because it is a quick and easy way to re-fuel your body, but here are some alternatives if you want to incorporate more whole foods into your diet:

Sweet potatoes and kidney beans Tuna on whole-grain bread Whole-wheat pasta with vegetables

Are nutrition bars good for weight loss?

It depends! To lose weight, you must burn more calories than you consume. Some brands of nutrition bars can be calorie bombs, containing upwards of 300 calories per serving. If you’re counting calories, these whole foods will help you feel more satiated than a nutrition bar:

Fresh fruits like apples, grapes, oranges, and bananas Whole grain crackers Skim milk Nuts and dried fruit Yogurt or string cheese

Are all nutrition bars equal?

No! In fact, some brands contain as much sugar as a candy bar. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by all the varieties of nutrition bars that are available, and they vary considerably when it comes to calories, added nutrients, and sugar levels. However, doing a bit of research can help you steer clear from purchasing a fortified candy bar! If you’re concerned about the nutritional value of your favorite brand of nutrition bar, check the label for the following criteria:

A short list of ingredients that contain a variety of whole foods No partially hydrogenated oils Less than 10 grams of sugar and no artificial syrups At least 3 grams of fiber 120-250 calories per bar less than 2 grams saturated fat and 0 grams of trans fat

If you do enjoy the taste and convenience of nutrition bars, be sure to do your homework and check the label before you buy! Look for whole foods—such as rolled oats, fruit, and nuts—on the nutrition label. Ingredients are listed in descending order from the highest amount to the lowest, which means that whole grains, whole oats, or fruit should be at the top of the list, while oils, sugar, and fat should be at the bottom.

Are there any benefits to eating nutrition bars?

Convenience is a big factor in nutrition bars—there is no mess, no preparation, and no refrigeration required. The bars also have a long shelf life, so you can store them in your desk or cupboard without having to worry that they will spoil.

Aside from their convenience and portability, nutrition bars are also full of carbohydrates, which can keep you energized during a long workout. Carbohydrates are one of your body’s best fuel sources due to the efficient way they use oxygen. In fact, they use less oxygen for every kilocalorie of energy produced than either fats or proteins, which make them an important part of your diet if you are physically active, especially if you are an endurance athlete and are using a significant amount of energy during your workouts.

Keep in mind that many whole foods are also good sources of carbs! InsideTracker can help you find the sources of healthy carbohydrates—such as bananas, whole grain bread, and beans—to meet your fitness and nutrition goals.

The bottom line is that nutrition bars work well as an occasional snack before or after a workout, but they are not meant to be meal replacements or provide your body with a complete range of nutrients. Vegetables, fruits, lean protein, whole grains, and healthy fats are all components of a healthy diet, but snacks like nutrition bars can help you fill a long gap in between meals or provide some fuel for a workout. While eating nutrition bars may be an occasional part of a healthy eating plan, try to make whole fruits, vegetables, and whole grains a priority when choosing what to eat.