Whole foods are best, but when you are constantly on-the-go, that option is not always possible. Enter meal replacement bars – the go-to source of nutrition of many that has gained in popularity in recent years. And, for good reason – when you are about to debunk and are faced with choosing between an empty calorie, high-sodium, fat-ladened meal from a fast food restaurant or an enriched energy bar, the latter choice wins out. Care needs to be taken, however, when choosing the best meal replacement bar for you. With all of the different choices on the market today, this can prove to be a challenge. How is one to know if their bar of choice is a good supplement to their diet or just a glorified candy bar?
Manufacturers of supplement bars strive to reach different consumer targets. Usually, the label tells all. Descriptors such as “low-carb,” “high-performance,” or “high-fiber” give an indication as for whom the bar is made and what nutritional “needs” it is intended to meet. Supplement bars basically fall under two main categories – meal replacement and performance. Subcategories within these would include bars engineered to meet the needs of different gender and age groups (e.g., women, children, etc.,), and/or those individuals with special dietary requirements/preferences (e.g., “vegan,” “organic,” “gluten-free,” etc.,).
When choosing the best bar for you, consider the following:
- Who are you buying the bar for? You? Your child?
- What are your goals? Are you looking to increase exercise performance? Do you want to build muscle mass? Lose weight? Run longer?
- Is the bar to replace a regular meal or to act as a nutritional supplement in your diet or your child’s diet?
The descriptions below of what to expect from the different categories of bars may help you to select the one that meets your needs and goals.
Meal Replacement Bars
- Individuals interested in using supplement bars as part of their weight loss program want to ensure that the bars provide a nutritional equivalent to what would be achieved by consuming a small meal composed of whole foods. These bars should contain fiber (at least 3-5 grams) to provide a sense of fullness. Diet bars should be relatively low in fat (no more than 5 grams), contain a moderate amount of protein (10-15 grams), and should be enriched with a third of your daily requirements for vitamins and minerals.
- When choosing a bar that will be a nutritional supplement to fill-in any “gaps” that may be in your or your child’s diet, be wary of claims such as “real fruit,” “yogurt,” etc.,. Read the label carefully because the source of “fruit” may actually be from juice concentrates and high-fructose corn syrup rather than real pieces of fruit. And, the form of yogurt present typically does not contain the live, active cultures that help with digestive and immune function. Also, use caution when deciding upon meal replacement bars that are dipped in chocolate or have chocolates swirls on top. These “extras” usually come with a price – added sugar and fat in amounts that equate or exceed those found in candy bars.
- To round out your nutritional needs or those of your child, serve a piece of fruit, some yogurt, or a glass of skim milk along with the meal replacement bar.
- Although there is a range, performance bars can contain a higher caloric content than diet bars targeted for weight loss in order to meet the increased energy needs of an active individual.
- Supplement bars that target bodybuilders tend to have the highest protein content, around 20-30 grams. Choose a bar that lists high-quality protein (whey, casein, or soy) as one of the main sources.
- Athletes who are looking for an energy bar to consume prior to a moderate- to high-intensity workout should look for one that is high in carbohydrates (around 25-40 grams). Avoid bars that are high in fat and fiber which can interfere with digestion and cause gastrointestinal distress.
- Endurance athletes looking for a supplement bar to be consumed during a prolonged exercise session (longer than an hour) would benefit from bars that are high in quick digesting carbohydrates (glucose). Ideally, these individuals want to consume 30-60 grams of carbohydrate per hour of exercise.
- Energy bars consumed post-workout should be relatively high in carbohydrates (30 grams or more) to replenish energy stores and have a moderate amount of protein (10 grams) to aid in muscle tissue repair.
What to Look for in all Supplement Bars
- The fat source should primarily come from mono- and poly-unsaturated fats such as whole-grains and nuts (e.g., oats, almonds, etc.,). Avoid bars high in trans and saturated fats.
- Limit bars sweetened with sugar alcohols which can lead to gastrointestinal upset. Instead, choose bars that are sweetened with natural sugars (e.g., fruit purees, honey, etc.,). Avoid bars made with high-fructose corn syrup and/or have simple sugars listed as the first or second ingredient.
- Carbohydrates should come from complex sources (e.g., whole-grain oats, wheat bran, etc.,). Avoid bars made with unrefined grains (e.g., white flour).
- The protein should come from quality sources such as egg, soy, whey, and casein.
Meal replacement and performance bars are a convenient source of energy and can have a place in your and/or your child’s diet when chosen wisely. Care should be taken to avoid going “overboard” on supplement bars. Since many can contain mega amounts of carbohydrates and proteins, you are at risk for consuming more calories than you expend, which can lead to weight gain. If you are considering using meal replacement bars, meeting with a dietitian can help you find the best one for your goals and nutritional needs.
Do you eat meal replacement bars? Which ones are your favorites? Share with us, we want to know!
Sources for more Information
MedicineNet.com “Meal Replacements: Choose Those Bars and Drinks Carefully,” Zelman, K.
Running Times Magazine, April 2007, “Raising the Bar – How to find the best energy bar for you,” Eberle, S.G.
“Kids and On-the-Go Nutrition,” Gavin, M.L.