The Skinny on Energy Bars

Energy bars are everywhere: front and center at Jewel, Whole Foods, Target, Walgreens and in school cafeterias and vending machines.

Viewed—often erroneously—as “healthy,” energy-bar consumption has risen dramatically in the past 10 years. The Packaged Facts reports a U.S. market for energy and cereal bars of $6 billion and growing. While energy bars aren’t usually the healthiest option, there are times when a bar can take the edge off hunger and power your workout.

Choose Real First

“Real, whole foods are always the preferred choice,” says Monique Ryan, registered dietician and owner of Personal Nutrition Designs. “Before you reach for an energy bar, consider choosing fruit, nuts or a vegetable for a snack. For higher-level exercisers with greater energy needs, a bar can be a good way to add calories.” For someone training for an endurance event or building strength in the weight room, an energy bar can add a much-needed calories and protein boost.

Grab and Go

While Ryan stresses the importance of picking real food first, she recognizes the convenience factor of energy bars for the average person. Energy bars are easy to pack in a backpack or gym bag, are non-perishable, easy to digest, taste good, can be eaten on the go, and generally provide a good supply of ready-to-use carbohydrates, fat and protein. As a part of your healthy diet, she encourages you to “consider your overall caloric intake of fruit, vegetables, lean protein and whole grains before reaching for a bar.”

An energy bar can be a good choice for… 

  • Kids and teenagers who need to fuel their after-school workout
  • Early-morning exercisers who want to save time and replenish energy stores
  • Lunchtime spin-class fans have to stave off hunger until their midday meal
  • After-work runners who squeeze in a workout before dinner

Not the Main Course

“Energy bars should not be used as a meal replacement. If you absolutely must, pair the bar with yogurt, fruit and nuts, as most do not have sufficient calories to be considered a meal,” Ryan cautions. She recommends that you know exactly what you are eating by reading the ingredient list. Choose bars with fewer ingredients (that you recognize), and avoid bars with trans fats and added sugar.

Bar Breakdown

Kind Almond & Coconut: filled with fruit and nuts; some added sugar; good almond and coconut taste; a bit sweet, higher in fat (mostly from the nuts)

  • 190 calories
  • 12g of fat
  • 21g carbohydrates
  • 3g protein
  • 7 total ingredients

Clif Bar Chocolate Chip: higher calories with lots of carbs for a long workout; some added sugar; chocolatey with nice texture

  • 240 calories
  • 5g fat
  • 44g carbohydrates
  • 10g protein
  • More than 10 ingredients

Luna Lemon Zest: coated with a hard shell; high in calcium and folic acid; lemony, crispy, added sugar, sweet and tasty

  • 180 calories
  • 5g fat
  • 27g carbohydrates
  • 9g protein
  • More than 10 ingredients

Larabar Cashew Cookie: just two ingredients—cashews and dates—make this a more natural option while not supplying much protein; higher fat content from the cashews

  • 230 calories
  • 13g fat
  • 23g carbohydrates
  • 6g protein
  • 2 ingredients!

thinkThin White Chocolate: greater protein than most bars; coated with a hard shell; not as sweet as other bars

  • 240 calories
  • 9g fat
  • 25g carbohydrates
  • 20g protein
  • More than 10 ingredients

For a fun, healthier bar, try making your own. With just three basic ingredients—nuts, dates and dried fruit—you can make a variety of flavors and freeze the individually wrapped bars for a quick snack. Try flavoring with your favorite ingredients, like coconut, chocolate or dried apples.

Consider packing a snack made of real food, like grapes, nuts or yogurt to fuel your day. Opt for an energy bar after considering your total intake for the day and when real food isn’t a convenient option. Energy bars can stave off hunger and get you through your workout to the next meal as a part of an overall healthy diet.