Overachievers be damned.
Just because someone tells you to constantly raise the bar, doesn’t mean that you should listen.
And that’s especially true when it comes to cramming sugary, vaguely healthy rectangles of grain into your frothing gullet.
The popularity of nutrition bars — which include everything from the ubiquitous Clif to the more pediatric products produced by Nature Valley — has skyrocketed in recent years, with more than 1,000 bars now on the market, according to a report that appeared last June in The Wall Street Journal. The same report states that there were only 226 nutrition bars on the market a decade ago.
But the efficacy of stuffing your face hole with nougat and lab-tested proteins is becoming increasingly problematic, according to Shanon Squires, human performance lab coordinator at the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center on the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora. Squires says that many so-called nutrition bars are cutely packaged red herrings that are more placebo than pick-me-up.
“Bars are kind of tricky because they’re marketed as healthy, but for the most part, they’re not,” he says. “In the sport performance world, people latch onto these things thinking that they need these for energy. It’s a poor concept.”
Squires says that, although they may taste like decadent desserts, many nutrition bars are packed with sugar and not-so-beneficial proteins that won’t do most athletes looking for nourishment much good. On top of containing excess carbohydrates that can temporarily spike insulin levels and prevent the body from shedding weight, he says bars that are packed with soy-based proteins can present particularly prickly challenges.
“Soy isn’t the best,” Squires says. “It tends to mimic estrogen in the body, and that can have negative effects for people.”
In place of soy, Squires prefers whey or hydrolyzed whey protein. The latter contains less lactose, although it can be slightly more expensive, with a one-pound bag running for about $25 on Amazon.com.
To combat the possibly negative side effects of soy, or an unnecessary amount of carbohydrates in a bar, Squires urges shoppers to simply be more cognizant while perusing the endless aisles of available bars — far before any food enters the body.
“The biggest thing people can do is flip it over and read the back,” he says.
When reading the ratios and percentages squished next to the bar code, shoppers should always be looking for the golden ratio of 1:1 between carbs and proteins, according to Squires. Although it’s uncommon — a typical Clif bar contains about four grams of carbs for every one gram of protein, which is not ideal —that equivalent relationship between energy boosters and muscle builders is the most beneficial. Squires points to the Power Crunch brand and Quest bars as two rectangular options that come close to that 1:1 ratio.
Ratios, proteins and marketing aside, all of this bar bashing begs the question: What’s an exercise fiend to do instead of reach for a reliable rectangle of faux-nutritional bliss? Luckily, there are options, according to Squires.
He says liquifying concoctions into smoothies or shakes allows gym rats to have more control over what they are ingesting and beats any processed bar in terms of nutritional benefits. Beef jerky and nuts are also healthy alternatives, despite the latter containing high amounts of fat. And for the overachievers, there’s always the DIY approach.
“There are also many recipes online for cold-pressed bars, which can be made at home using different whey proteins and different ingredients to flavor them,” Squires says.
For those who will continue to buy whatever seasonal creation the culinary team at Clif creates next, Squires says things could be worse as newer nutrition bars trump the Snickers bar recovery regimens of the past. However, he’s hopeful the favoritism showed toward the prolific, sugary blocks will shift in the coming years.
“If they’re not artificial and made of nuts and seeds they can be healthy, but otherwise — using them to replace a meal is especially bad — they don’t fulfill the needs as far as calories and vitamins go,” he says. “I’m hoping companies start to catch on and start to adjust things. I think that there’s a trend that’s starting to change, but I don’t know how long it’s going to take to have an impact.”