Energy bars are one of your favorite snacks for good reasons: They’re tasty, convenient, and relatively healthy. But with hundreds of brands and flavors to choose from, which is best? That depends.
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“You need to consider when you plan to eat the bar,” says Tara Gidus, M.S., R.D., an Orlando-based sports dietitian. Before a run, for example, you want the right amount and type of carbs for an energy boost—without a trip to a porta potty. Afterward, you need more protein foods. Here’s how to find the perfect bar for every running situation.
You’re dashing out the door for a run when you realize you haven’t eaten in hours, or you’re in the middle of a workout and need a quick energy boost. Grab a bar with maltodextrin. This lab-formulated carbohydrate is more quickly absorbed than other carbohydrates, so it delivers a fast hit of fuel. “When you need a rapid rise in blood sugar, maltodextrin is a good choice,” says Gidus. It’s also easier on the stomach than the concentrated glucose found in some sports drinks. Because maltodextrin is relatively tasteless, it’s a useful choice when you want to avoid overly sweet gels and chews, which can leave an unpleasant aftertaste during your run.
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A good bar: PowerBar’s Fruit Smoothie Energy bar contains maltodextrin, packing 43 grams of carbs in 220 calories. Calcium and sodium help prevent cramps. And its low fiber content won’t tax your stomach.
During medium- to long-mileage runs (like when you're training for a half marathon), you need easily digestible energy that won’t send your blood-sugar levels on a roller-coaster ride. Pick a honey-based bar. Honey contains carbohydrates (glucose and fructose) that deliver fast and long-lasting fuel. “Fructose is absorbed relatively slowly,” says Gidus, “so its energy is released over time, while glucose is fast-acting.” Plus, studies show that consuming those two types of carbs at once increases the amount of energy your muscles can use and improves performance, says Gidus. Unlike table sugar, honey contains trace amounts of B vitamins, calcium, and iron.
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A good bar: Honey Stinger’s Organic Stinger Waffle layers honey between two thin cookies, providing 21 grams of carbs and four percent of your daily need for iron—responsible for creating hemoglobin, which transports oxygen to your hard-working muscles.
If back-to-back meetings mean you’ll have to skip a sit-down meal, grab a high-calorie bar with extra fiber and protein. It should contain 350 to 500 calories, nine grams of protein or more, and high-fiber carbohydrates, such as seeds, whole oats, and dried fruit. You also want some healthy fat (from nuts, for example), which, says Christine Gerbstadt, M.D., R.D., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “helps you absorb vitamins more effectively and keeps you feeling satisfied.”
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A good bar: Probar’s Old School PB&J fills in for the lunchtime standby. It packs six grams of fiber, nine grams of protein, and other run-fueling nutrients,
The high mileage needed to train for a marathon or ultra makes you susceptible to colds and the flu. Good time to try an antioxidant-packed bar. "The more intense your exercise is, the more you need antioxidants to help you recover," says Gidus. "There's good research suggesting that selenium, vitamin E, and other antioxidants help protect the immune system." Nuts and dried fruits are rich in these antioxidants; cherries in particular contain phytochemicals, which help protect against cancer and heart disease and help reduce inflammation.
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A good bar: After a run or as a snack, try Kind's Dark Chocolate Cherry Cashew Bar—it packs 50 percent of your DV for three key immune-boosting antioxidants: vitamins A, C, and E. Or eat Lärabar's Über Cherry Cobbler bar, with cherries, almonds, and pecans.
When mile 15 of your 22-miler has your body begging for ibuprofen, reach for a jolt of caffeine instead. A study published in 2009 in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism found that it reduces exercise-related pain during workouts. Study participants who consumed caffeine prior to high-intensity cycling reported less quadriceps pain than those who did not consume it. Researchers believe that caffeine blocks the brain’s receptors for adenosine, a chemical released in response to inflammation.
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A good bar: Clif Bar’s Cool Mint Chocolate pairs 50 milligrams of caffeine with the invigorating flavor of mint. Eat half a bar per hour of running, since it contains 10 grams of protein and five grams of fat, which could upset your stomach if eaten all at once (clifbar.com).
When you want a nutrient-rich recovery snack but don’t have time to seek out the perfect whole food, eat a carb-rich bar with moderate doses of protein and fiber (five to 10 grams of each for a bar with about 200 calories). “Postrun, these nutrients can help improve recovery and curb hunger,” says Gidus. For the greatest recovery benefit, eat a bar within 20 minutes of your run. If your workout was particularly hard or long, follow that with a light meal of protein and whole-grain carbs one to two hours later.
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A good bar: Hammer Bar’s Cashew Coconut Chocolate Chip packs 27 grams of carbs with five grams of protein and fiber. Really tough runs call for the 14 grams of protein in Balance Bar’s Chocolate Mint Cookie Crunch—it contains vitamin E, which helps repair muscles after long runs.