Ask A Nutritionist: Are Energy Bars Healthy?

How to tell which bars are worth consuming — and which better belong in the candy aisle.

A photo of an energy bar with dried fruit and oats
A photo of an energy bar with dried fruit and oats

They’re fast, easy and portable, claim to be good for you, and sometimes as tasty as the average chocolate bar.

One look at the array of energy bars on the shelves of your grocery store is a sign of their popularity. Sixty percent of consumers want their snacks to give them an energy boost, according to the 2016 IRI Snacking Survey.

But just because energy bars seem healthy and natural — after all, many are packed with fiber and protein in the form of dried fruit and nuts — they aren’t, necessarily, says Helen Mullen, a certified dietitian nutritionist and a clinical dietitian with NewYork-Presbyterian. Some contain added sugar and saturated fat, not to mention upward of 350 calories each.

Here, Mullen helps clear up the confusion and debunks common myths about this popular snack.

What’s a good rule of thumb when choosing an energy bar?
The fewer ingredients on the label, the better. The more additives you see — particularly excess sugar alcohols (sorbitol, xylitol), which can cause gastric distress — the less likely the bar is to deserve the “healthy” moniker. Palm oils, soy protein isolate and so-called natural flavors are also red flags. Instead, reach for a bar with fewer ingredients and make sure you recognize them and can pronounce them. Think: nuts, raisins, seeds, honey or even dark chocolate. Lärabar chocolate chip cookie dough flavor, for instance, contains only fruit, nuts, chocolate and sea salt.

Man eating an energy bar

Do energy bars actually give you energy?
If you’re running to the gym before or after work and don’t have time to eat, certain energy bars can be a good source of fiber and protein, which will help get you through your spin class. But so will a peanut butter sandwich, a handful of trail mix, or a piece of fruit and some nuts. In other words, there’s nothing magic about the ingredients in energy bars that you can’t find in other foods.

Can energy bars help you slim down?
A lot of people think energy bars are great for weight loss. Not necessarily. The problem is, instead of using a bar as a replacement for breakfast or lunch, people end up eating it in addition to whatever else is on their plate, pumping up the calories in their daily tally. That’s because one lonely little energy bar isn’t as satisfying as, say, a cup of yogurt and some fruit. If you do want to swap out breakfast or lunch for an energy bar — and nothing else — grab one with at least 8 grams of protein and 2 grams of fiber for maximum satiety.

What’s a better vending machine choice — an energy bar or an ordinary chocolate bar?
Go with the energy bar, as long as it meets the requirements above. If you opt for one with seeds, nuts and healthy fats, you’ll end up with more nutritional bang for your buck.

Are gluten-free energy bars a good idea for those with gluten intolerance?
That depends. People get hooked on the “gluten-free” label, but that’s not a reason to buy something. It’s still about the ingredients, and the fewer and more recognizable they are, the better.

What are your favorite energy bars?
I like Kind and Clif bars, which are tasty and tend to be light on the added sugar. But it truly comes down to the way you eat them. In general, even if you’re active, it’s a good bet that you probably need less calories than you think, so if you grab an energy bar every time you do a little exercise, you may end up gaining weight.

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