J. McFarlane / MSNBC
updated 8/9/2006 12:38:02 PM ET 2006-08-09T16:38:02

Bars — energy bars, protein bars, breakfast bars and more — have never been hotter, whether for a meal replacement, a snack on the go, or a pre- or post-workout energy boost. However, they are not necessarily health food. If a bar is your choice, pick carefully to get one that meets your needs, but don’t believe that it’s the same as a balanced combination of fruits, vegetables and low-fat protein foods full of vitamins and natural protective compounds.

If you are using a bar to replace a meal, check calorie content. Trying to get by on a bar with less than 250 calories will leave you searching for vending machines after a couple hours. Protein is important both to meet daily nutritional needs and to make a meal satisfy your appetite longer. Look for a bar with 10 to 15 grams of protein if you use it as a meal replacement. Among several choices, choose the bar with more fiber. To make such a bar into a more nutritious meal, pick up or bring from home a piece of fresh fruit or small package of dried fruit. This will add energy, nutrients, natural protective compounds and fiber.

Some people have the opposite problem: they choose a bar because they think it’s a more diet-friendly snack choice than a candy bar, but end up with a meal’s worth of calories. For a light snack, look for a bar with 100 to 200 calories and at least three grams of fiber from some combination of whole grains, dried fruit and/or nuts. Some breakfast or granola bars may fall in this light calorie range, but if protein and fiber are low, and sugar or fat are high, vitamin fortification alone will not make them healthful.

Athletes who are not trying to lose weight may want a higher calorie level of 200 to 300 calories for a snack, but the source of those calories matters. Runners, who want a bar with plenty of carbohydrate, should look for more of that carbohydrate listed as “other carbohydrate” and limited amounts as sugar. Athletes trying to build more muscle often focus on bars with more protein, but the importance of that depends on overall eating habits. If regular meals contain moderate amounts of lean protein, then an after-exercise snack with 10 to 20 grams of protein will be plenty to enhance muscle growth. Only those who eat more limited meal protein, or large men doing serious bodybuilding, will really benefit from a between-meal bar with 25 or more grams of protein. In either case, less expensive alternatives to a bar can provide as much or more nutritional value.

One advantage of packaged bars is their portability and easy storage. But a sandwich bag with three-quarters of a cup of lightly sweetened whole grain cereal and raisins or other dried fruit is easily stored and provides 150 to 200 calories and at least 3 grams of fiber. A one-ounce sleeve of nuts is another alternative, providing 165 cal, 7 to 8 grams of protein and two grams of fiber. Combining both of these would make a snack with more calories and protein that might also be suitable as a meal replacement. If storage is not a concern, other options include peanut butter on whole grain crackers, fresh fruit with a quarter-cup of nuts, or six ounces of low-fat yogurt or cottage cheese with fruit.

In evaluating these choices, consider the big picture. Any food is more than the calories, carbohydrate, protein, fat and the few vitamins listed on the label. Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds supply additional vitamins and minerals not listed on a label, as well as a variety of natural plant compounds that can lower risk of cancer, heart disease and a variety of health problems. No single food choice determines the quality of your whole diet, however. If you use packaged bars occasionally, make smart choices to put together an overall eating pattern loaded with well-rounded good nutrition.

Nutrition Notes is provided by the American Institute for Cancer Researchin Washington, D.C.

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