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Sports Bars: To Eat or Not to Eat

by Fitness Expert Christine Lydon

I'm often asked, what's the best sports bar on the market? Unfortunately there is no simple answer. Some sports bars are more appropriate for certain individuals. Some individuals should not be eating sports bars period. But before I get into all that, lets back up for a minute and review some basic nutrition facts.

People are unequivocally more savvy about diet and nutrition today than they were ten years ago. However, popular thinking continues to abound with misconceptions. On the one hand, most of us are aware that reducing fat in the diet to less than 20% of total caloric intake can be beneficial in terms of shedding pounds and improving cardiovascular health. On the other hand, we've also been brainwashed to believe that "fat free" translates to "eat as much as your heart desires." What many don't realize is that in order for a chewy, sweet, cookie or brownie or sports bar to remain chewy and sweet in the absence of fat, extra sugar has been added to the recipe.


Sugar is a carbohydrate. As such, it contains only 4 calories per gram whereas fat contains 9. Carbohydrates are the primary source of energy for the human body, so what's wrong with a little sugar? Unfortunately, all carbohydrates are not created equal. Carbohydrates are sub classified into simple sugars and complex carbohydrates. In the most general of terms, complex carbohydrates have lower glycemic indices, and as such they tend to be assimilated gradually and will provide a more constant and sustained (though less intense) feeling of energy. Pasta, oats, and yams are among the best sources of complex carbohydrates. Simple sugars are assimilated rapidly, providing a burst of energy which is often followed by feelings of lethargy. Examples of simple sugars that you are likely to find in sports bars include fructose, dextrose, maltose, and sucrose.

Sugar Alcohols

And now, the discriminating consumer has yet another consternation to face: sugar alcohols. Sugar alcohols like glycerine, are used in sports bars to enhance texture and flavor. Molecularly speaking, a sugar alcohol is not a sugar. Hence, manufacturers are not required to list sugar alcohols under carbohydrate content. Don't be fooled by the nomenclature! Sugar alcohols not only contain over 4 calories per gram, they also boast glycemic indices of a magnitude comparable to refined sugars.

How Can You Tell If A Bar Contains Sugar Alcohols?

Try this simple formula:
(grams of carbs + grams of protein) x 4 + (grams of fat x 9) = total calories.

If your calculation falls more than ten or fifteen calories shy of the total caloric content as listed on the bar, chances are good that sugar alcohols make up the difference. A prime example of nutritional content manipulation is the Bio Protein 32 bar, which boasts "32 grams of protein and only 12 grams of carbohydrate." However, if you do the math, you'll discover that the Bio Protein 32 bar contains 427 calories, of which only 248 can be accounted for by adding protein (32g = 128 cal.), carbohydrate (12g = 48 cal.), and fat (8g = 72 cal.) content. The bar owes the remaining 179 calories to an enormous amount of glycerine, on the order of 45 grams! That's a lot of sugar alcohol; more than enough to push the glycemic index of the bar through the stratosphere.

Okay, you've been educated. Armed with the knowledge to decipher the bar's "nutritional content," you know to look for complex carbs and fiber and to be wary of simple sugars. You know that sugar alcohols are just a sneaky way for manufacturers to mask the true sugar content of the product. If things seem bleak for sports bars, don't lose hope. There are many situations appropriate to their consumption. Identify your particular circumstance or circumstances below for the sports bar that's right for the occasion.

As A Meal Replacement

Whether you are sedentary or active, if you have a hectic schedule that requires occasionally missing a meal, substituting a sport bar can be a viable alternative. As a meal replacement, I recommend a variety that's high in protein, low in fat and simple sugars. The more protein and complex carbs the bar contains, the longer you will feel alert, energized, and sated. Moreover, any food used as a meal replacement should contain protein.


  • Meso-Tech Bar (325 calories; 25g protein; 38g carbohydrate; 8g fat).

During (Or Just Prior To) Power Training

Unlike endurance training, a power work out such as weight training or sprints calls for sporadic bouts of maximal or near maximal energy output. Because of the intermittent nature of power work out, it does not speed metabolism or burn calories at a rate which rivals cardiovascular training. For this reason, a bar with a relatively low glycemic index is most appropriate. Prior to or during a power work out, I recommend a bar that's moderate to high in protein and moderate to low in sugars.


  • Meso-Tech Bar (325 calories; 25g protein; 38g carbohydrate; 8g fat)
  • PR Bar(220 calories; 15g protein; 24g carbohydrate; 7g fat)
  • Balance Bar (184 calories; 14g protein; 22g carbohydrate; 6g fat)

During (Or Just Prior To) Endurance Training

An endurance event calls for prolonged and consistent caloric intake. If you hit a wall and crave an energy surge, high-glycemic foods are the way to go. Because you are essentially burning calories as quickly as they can be absorbed, a high glycemic index can be of value. For endurance work, I recommend a bar that's low to moderate in protein, moderate in fat, and moderate to high in carbohydrates including sugars.


  • Gatorade Bar (262 calories; 7g protein; 47g carbohydrate; 5g fat)
  • Clif Bars (240 calories; 9g protein; 42g carbohydrate; 4g fat)

When To Avoid Sports Bars

If you are a relatively sedentary individual, adding sports bars to your current diet will only lead to weight gain. On the other hand, even if you are a relatively sedentary individual, substituting high-protein sports bars for meals may actually help you to lose weight.








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