Energy Bars: The Good, The Bad, and And The Ugly

What to look for and what to avoid
Published in the October/November 2009 issue.

When energy bars hit the market 15 years ago, they quickly became a go-to snack for dancers. But soon they gained a bad reputation—with up to 300 calories per bar and high-fructose corn syrup as a main ingredient, many brands were basically candy bars in disguise.

 

Recently, however, manufacturers have started producing healthier bars made with whole foods like soy, nuts and dried fruit. Now dancers have several nutritious options that they can easily stash in their bags.

 

Yet finding the right bar can be as tricky as finding the right pointe shoes: You need to try a few before you hit the best fit. With so many brands and flavors available, the choices can feel overwhelming. Heidi Skolnik, sports nutritionist at the School of American Ballet, tells dancers to first decide why they are eating a bar. “Is it a pre-class pick-me-up, post-class recovery snack to bridge you to the next meal or a meal replacement?” she says. Depending on when you eat the bar, there are a few different areas of the nutritional label to which you need to pay close attention.

 

What To Look For

 

For a pre-class snack, choose a bar made up of at least 65 percent carbohydrates and no more than 20 percent fat. This high-carb, low-fat combo gradually releases energy, allowing you to perform your best over a longer period of time. These bars are most effective if eaten 20 minutes before class, or in single bites every 15 minutes throughout.

 

An energy bar with a low glycemic index (which ranks foods on how they affect blood-sugar levels) is also a smart choice before class or rehearsal. You want the GI to be under 55; if the label does not list it, look for a bar with fewer than 18 grams of sugar. Low GI foods take a while to digest, so you stay full for longer. They also keep your blood sugar stable—unlike the highs and lows that sugary foods can create.

 

When you’re using an energy bar as a recovery snack, buy one that’s dense in both carbohydrates and protein (about 20 grams each). Carbohydrates replenish your energy stores and protein helps your muscles recover while also providing satiety.

 

In general, reach for bars that contain  unprocessed ingredients such as fruits and nuts. These offer more fiber and they retain their original vitamins and minerals.

 

What To Avoid

 

Steer clear of added sugars and processed items (foods that have been chemically altered through additives, like flavor fillers and preservatives). Avoid chemical-sounding ingredients that end in “-ol”—these are usually sugar alcohols that can cause bloating and gas.

 

Although the tastiness of chocolate-coated bars is hard to resist, these varieties tend to be loaded with saturated fat and calories. Before indulging, make sure the bar contains no more than 3 grams of saturated fat. If you’re using the bar as a pre- or post-class snack, it should have no more than 250 calories.

 

“You don’t want to rely on bars for most meals and snacks,” Skolnik says, no matter how nutritious they are. Two a day is the most any dancer should eat. Bananas, yogurt, string cheese, nuts and raisins are all healthful alternatives that offer the same portable convenience. Even though they may not have the crunch or sweetness of energy bars, these snacks are packed with vitamins and minerals that will fill you up and give you that same boost of energy.

 

 

Natalie Caamano is a certified sports nutritionist in New York City.

 

 

Top Choices


1.  Clif Bar: Depending on flavor, these range between 230 and 260 calories. They contain 23 vitamins and minerals and are 70 percent organic. They are made of soy protein and are wheat-free. When to eat: Anytime!

2.  PowerBar Harvest: These bars are the best for a high-carbohydrate (at least 42 grams) and high fiber (at least 5 grams) snack. They contain grains and 23 vitamins and minerals. Each flavor offers at least 10 grams of protein and has between 240 and 250 calories. When to eat: Before class or rehearsal.

3.  Luna Bars: High in calcium, folic acid and vitamin D, they are between 170 and 190 calories. Luna Bars contain at least 3 grams of fiber and 8 to 9 grams of protein. When to eat: After class or in between rehearsals.

 

Worst Choices


1.  Quaker bars: Cereal and energy bars by Quaker have lots of sugar and high fructose corn syrup. They also lack nutritional content.

2.  Nature Valley bars: These bars are loaded with calories, sugar and fat that let them create their wide variety of flavors.

3.  PowerBar (original): Studies have shown them to cause unstable blood-sugar levels—an initial boost and quick crash, similar to that of a candy bar.