Energy Bars: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Looking for some fast fuel before or after your exercise, or a quick and easy treat that’s more nutritious than a candy bar or a 100-calorie pack of cookies? If so, energy bars may be a practical option for you. They’re convenient, easy to carry around, about the right size for a snack or even a meal replacement, and can be a good source of many nutrients.

But these days there are so many options to choose from, with such a wide range of nutritional quality, that it can be pretty confusing to pick one that’s right for you. And the marketing claims made by many of these items don’t make it any easier to tell the good ones from the candy bars with a few added vitamins. All calories provide “energy,” so literally anything can be called an “energy bar.”

What kind of bar you should choose depends a lot on what you want it to do for you. Here’s a handy way of putting energy bars into functional categories according to your specific needs, along with some nutrition info you can use to compare different brands…

First of all, let’s take just a moment to remind ourselves about the big picture here, which is that there’s really no such thing as an energy bar or meal replacement that’s as good for you as a real meal made with good, old-fashioned whole foods. The best time to consider an energy bar is when, for one reason or another, a real meal isn’t likely to happen, and you don’t want to go without eating something.

There are way too many different energy bars and brands on the market to look at them individually. But I think that, for most people, there are three functional categories all these bars can be sorted into, and each category has some “ideal” characteristics you can look for when selecting your own energy bar.

1. Bars for fueling up before exercise, or refueling afterwards.

Ideal Calorie Range:150-300
Fat Content: Low (less than 3 grams)
Fiber Content: Low (less than 2 grams)
Protein Content: Medium for cardio exercise (20-30% of total calories)
High for strength exercise (25-50% of total calories)
Carb Content: High for cardio exercise (40-65% of total calories)
Medium for strength training (35-60% of total calories)
Sugar Content: Your preference (sugar consumed before or after exercise will be used as fuel or to replace glycogen; low risk of fat storage)

Rationale: This snack/meal should be low in fat and fiber to speed digestion, and high in carbs and protein to provide fuel and the raw materials for muscle repair.

2. Meal Replacement Bars.

Ideal Calorie Range: 250-450 Calories
Fat Content: Up to 15 grams (5 grams saturated)
Fiber Content: High (over 5-7 grams)
Protein Content:15-35% of total calories
Carb Content: 40-65% of total calories
Sugar Content: Low (less than 6-12 grams)

Rationale: Since this is one of your regular meals, it should be as consistent as possible with your overall nutrition goals. You can juggle carb/fat/protein content to make your overall daily ratios come out right. Look for bars made with whole grains, natural sugars, and healthy fats.

3. Healthy Snack Bars.

Ideal Calorie Range: 100-250 calories
Fat Content: Moderate (up to 10 grams, 0 trans fat)
Fiber Content: High ( the more the better)
Protein Content: 8-20 grams
Carb Content: 10-35 grams
Sugar Content: No or very low refined sugar; natural sugars OK

Rationale: Fiber, fat and protein are more filling; refined sugar increases appetite. Also look for vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients you're not getting enough of from regular meals.

Here's a comparison chart with general nutrition info on many popular energy bars, and another one with info on some of the healthier but lesser known bars you're most likely to find in health food stores.

My personal favorites in each category:

Exercise fuel: PowerBar Performance (Chocolate Peanut Butter, of course).
Meal Replacement: Solid Protein by Nature's Best & Bear Valley bars
Healthy Snack: Larabar (almost any flavor)

What are your favorites?

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CD18072298 4/30/2021
Interesting article but some links are outdated. Report
MARYBLEW 3/5/2021
God to know! Reading labels and choosing can be overwhelming Report
CECTARR 8/13/2020
Thanks Report
NIKO27 6/30/2020
Great Article Report
I love fiber bars, I always have enough energy! Report
Thanks Report
love snack bars! glad to know the difference. Report
Thank you. Report
I like Cascadian Farm Organic Chewy Dark Chocolate Bars. Report
Thank You...………... Report
Great info! Report
thanks Report
Thanks for the information Report
Thanks for the information Report
thank you Report
Not a big energy bar guy. Nice to see some healthy homemade alternatives here Report
I like the bars at Aldis, Fiber One, and Kind bars myself. Report
Cookies Report
Great info, Coach Dean! Thanks! Report
Great information. Thanks for sharing. Report
good info Report
thanks Report
Thank you for posting this article. I love having bars in my reach when I need them and it’s good to know what I should be looking for. Report
Questbars Report
I love the Fiber One Peanut Butter or Chocolate bars. I have one for Breakfast every morning with my cup of tea. Report
I LOVE Larabars (banana bread is awesome) and I eat Luna bars as well Report
i was just thinking about buying some for my on the road trip Report
I keep these handy. I had a stress test the other day and instead of eating the crackers and peanut butter they offered, I ate the Fiber One Oatmeal Chocolate Bar. About 150 calories and high protein. Report
I have tried many of these bars. Some are awful, some are too good, but I have found Fiber One has good flavor and nutrients. Report
I'm hypoglycemic, so I need higher protein and lower carbs. Some of my favorites are the PowerBar Nut Naturals bars, in mixed nuts or trail mix flavors. They're 210 calories each and generally cost about $1.10 each. Kashi Go-Lean bars are pretty good. My latest love is the Kellogs Special K bars in double chocolate or peanut butter chocolate. I can get a package of 16 total for $12 at Sam's (like Costco). Snickers Marathon bars in honey oat or chocolate crunch are also good. Report
I am not a big fan of energy bars...the majority of them have trans fat or high fructose corn syrup or both. If I really want one, I have to go to a health food store and buy organic ones...if not, I just avoid them. Report
thanks for the info! these are much like all the Snackwell products, you really have to pay attention to the food labels, or you may as well have a Snickers Bar! Report
As far as bars go, I tend to stick to the granola types.

Energy-Kashi Go Lean Crunchy Chocolate Caramel. It's a bigger bar with a few more calories than some of the others I eat and takes effort to chew so this works out well for me. Only one of the Go Lean Crunchy bars that is 2 WW points so well worth it.

Snacks-I too am a big fan of the Fibre One bar, I stick with the Oats and Chocolate and the Strawberry ones most. Also 2 points and really satisfies the sweet tooth. I also like the Kashi TLC Chewy granola bars. The Trail Mix flavor and the Dark Chocolate Cherry are awesome!

The Costco near my house has a big box that makes the Fibre One and TLC bars cheap to keep on hand. There's always at least one in my drawer at work.

Meal-Clif bars. Most have about 4 points, and will fill me up when paired with a banana and lots of water.

In a pinch...there is not one convenience store I've ever been to which does not stock the Nature Valley Oats n Honey crunchy granola bars. I even see these vending machines often so, when all else fails, as sometimes it does, this works fine too. Report
I just tried Nature Valleys Sweet and Salty snack bar, my family and I loved them. Its too late to read the nutritional info. What do you think of them? Report
When I was in high school, my mom would send me to school with two PowerBars (Chocolate and Peanut Butter to pretend it was a Reece's Peanut Butter Cup) on days that I had Volleyball games. When I stopped playing Volleyball and decided to just run on my own, she bought me Luna bars in all kinds of flavors. I love them all! I've actually continued to get them over the last 6 years since I've been out of high school. Report
I have stopped eating them, because they make me go over my daily calories Report
I had to comment on the Alton Brown homemade energy bars. I did make these once and I liked them O.K. but they are very dense and heavy. A bit too much for me and my husband wouldn't touch them (after he tried it once). I had to eat them all myself. However, they are super healthy. I simply don't have the time to make them usually and they require special ingredients. Report
I occassionally eat Luna Bars since they do not have HFCS and are all natural. They taste yummy! Report
When I have that sweet tooth attact... I grab a fiber one bar! It helps my sweet tooth and give me the fiber I need too! No more candy bars for me!!! Report
I love Fiber One Bars. Peanut butter is my favorite. But, be careful not to eat more than 1 a day... as we all know what a lot of fiber can do ; ) Report
Personally, I love P90X Protein Bars. Berry is my favorite and they also have Mocha which is okay. The Berry is very tasty and extremely efficient nutritionally. They work great as a Snack or mini meal replacement when you are on the go.

I see several of you have tried them too. I love them!
I am also a regular user of the Beach Body web site for Support.

I reach out on the Spark and Beach Body Daily.

Thanks Report
I like the Shaws Crunchy Granola Bars. They come 2 bars to a package. Each bar is 100 calories (or you can eat both). Usually I will eat one before my gym routine (or after). They travel well and are flavorful and crunchy. I like to eat one bar with a piece of fruit. I really like their honey and oats as well as peanut butter. They are also not very expensive. Report
I love Fiber One bars and they have 9 grams of fiber! Report
I LOVE Clif bars or their feminine version, Luna Bars. Clif bars are vegan, too! They're mostly organic and are generally cheaper than the other ones (about a dollar a bar!). They even have a few kinds at the WalMart here! They are absolutely delicious. Try one! Report
I tried acouple different energy bars and I haven't found one that I like...yuckie!! Report
i have a toasted nut's n cranberry luna bar for breakfast everyday and then use them as a mid morning snack as well. for my afternoon snack i have caramel nut brownie luna bar. they really taste great and are a great source of protein and other vitamins and minerals. larabars rock too, the pistachio (did i spell that right?) is killer. Report
I love Fiber One and Nature Valley bars. They are great for breakfast on the run or for an afternoon snack. Report
I love bars!! Luna Bars, Raw Revolution Bars, ProBar, Greens Bars, Full Bar, Gnu Bars, Kind Bars.... all are awesome!!!!

Check them out if you haven't heard of any of them. GNU are great for fiber. Kind Bars are a medley of nuts and fruits. Raw Rev. are made from live fruits, seeds and raw agave. Greens Bar has a great balance of fats, carbs and protein (and provides you with your daily greens!)
I like the Snickers bars because they have great nutritional content and about 24g of protein @ least. Have yet to try Larabars though, although I see them everywhere. Report
I really like the South Beach Diet bars. They are lower in carbs and high in Protein. I try to avoid anything with corn syrup, which some of these bars have (fiber one). Report