Energy bars - To eat or not to eat?

Over the course of 3 years as an inpatient clinical RD, I learned a lot. With so much textbook literature, research and science packed into my brain over the 4 years it took me to earn my dietitian credential, I quickly learned that in order to properly diagnose and treat my patients, every case study was different.

You see, there was never just one clear diagnosis. Every patient was different based on his/her patient history, labs, other co-existing health issues and symptoms.

Unfortunately, our society doesn't think like this, especially as it relates to daily nutrition.

Our society succeeds at thinking in extreme - you either have a perfect diet or a horrible diet. Food is good or it's bad. You eat well or you cheat. Food is allowed or off-limits.

You don't have to have a perfect diet to have a healthy diet. 

Sadly, a lot of people feel great anxiety, guilt and judgement when it relates to food, especially if self-worth is tied to trying to do what you think everyone else is doing, even if it's not working for you.

This idea of energy or sport bars, whether or not they are good or bad, is a heavily discussed topic among nutrition experts and one with great controversy. The clean eater explains that bars are heavily processed candy bars and should be avoided at all costs whereas the dieter can't live without them. The athlete is then confused, are packaged energy dense "foods" allowed in a healthy diet?
Should I just eat potatoes and trail mix instead?

PopSugar recently interviewed me on the topic so I thought I'd continue the conversation and share my take on bars and how and when to select the appropriate bar for your nutritional needs. 

Bar Ingredients: 

This depends on your reason for consuming the bar. Do you need a mix of protein, carbs and fat, do you need a ratio of high carbs to low protein/fat, do you need high fiber, do you need the protein, do you need the calories, is this a meal replacement or a snack, do you need the vitamins/minerals/nutrients?

What do you need in the bar that you can't get from real food? This isn't a sarcastic joke but instead one you should always ask yourself when choosing a bar as a real food replacement.
Depending on your bar needs, I would first make sure that your bar is free from any type of sugar alcohols (sorbitol and xylitol) or artificial sweeteners (ex. aspartame and sucralose), which can cause a host of GI issues. Always prioritize real food ingredients and minimize added sugar.

Choose real food:

If you have a real food option, choose it! Bars are the perfect easy, convenient option when you are tired, have little desire to cook or don't plan ahead...but that's not a valid excuse to eat a bar. Sure bars are easy to find and easy to eat wen life is busy, stress is high and you didn't prepare your own meal. Ask yourself if you have recently gravitated toward bars as a "healthy" alternative or possibly a meal or snack replacement, to real food? Make the effort to create a meal of food, not ingredients wrapped in a package.

Enjoy your bar: 

 There are many situations in life when you don't have a suitable meal option - commuting, stuck in traffic, delayed at the airport, traveling, in a meeting, etc. Bars are great emergency food when you just need something to help control blood sugar or to provide substance in the belly. The great thing about bars is that they can be very dense, so sometimes a bite or two can go a long way. While bars shouldn't become a daily habit, I think every athlete should keep a bar on hand for those "oh no" situations. 

You need the calories: 

There are many times in peak training when the appetite is zapped, especially in the heat. While liquids and fruit are often craved, solid food may become unappealing for many hours throughout the day. Additionally, many athletes double as parents on the weekend, with rushed schedules and lots of to-do's, like sport games, which makes eating a low priority until evening. It's important to understand your higher energy intake needs on your higher energy expenditure days. There are certain situations when athletes will benefit from the extra calories in a bar, when real food is not easy to consume, easy to find or easy to prepare. For many athletes, who struggle to eat "enough" on higher workout days or who are trying to gain weight, a bar may be the only option to increase caloric intake without compromising digestion (there's only so much real food an athlete can eat without getting too full and uncomfortable).

 You need the nutrients/protein:

I'm sure there are exceptions but when athletes ask me to recommend a bar for more vitamins/minerals or protein, I say "choose real food". Despite bars featuring a high protein content or vitamins and minerals, there's no replacement for the nutrients found in real food.

Before/During a workout:

I'm a big advocate of real food consumed before/after workouts and sport nutrition products consumed during training. While there are exceptions, I believe that every athlete can find a real food option to easily digest before a workout. A banana w/ nut butter or a few Saltine crackers w/ deli meat will do the trick when you only have 20 minutes to digest something before a 90 minute or less workout. As for during the workout, I recommend bars (with a mix of carbs, protein and fat) for low intensity cycling and of course, any long duration outdoor activity that prevents you from transporting real food. Otherwise, for higher intensity cycling, I recommend liquid calories and electrolytes from a bottle and small quantities of solid food (bar, food portable) spread out throughout the workout, for longer sessions (2+ hours), as needed, to keep the tummy happy. 

The great thing about bars is that there are many on the market to choose from, but you can also make them at home. 

As you can see, there are so many different scenarios and situations which make it hard for me to give a general recommendation for bars.

To summarize:
1) Prioritize real food, always.
2) Keep a bar on hand for emergency situations.
3) Bars should be consumed with a purpose, not out of convenience.