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Protein, Energy, Diet, and Nutrition Bars: Fit or Fake?

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Okay, you are on a "quest" to get healthy and fit –– if not, you should be. That said, is your hectic schedule keeping you from eating fit and wholesome meals? Due to your time restraints, do you continually resort to junk food and fast food that only sabotages your chance of lasting success? Well, you are not alone. Finding "healthy and fit fast food” items can be quite a chore itself, even when it comes to sifting through the hundreds of protein, energy, diet, and nutrition bars –– AKA “meal replacement bars."

The positive sides to meal replacement bars are their convenience and portability as well as providing a way to keep you from skipping meals and starving all day long, which in reality has many benefits when it comes to weight loss, energy, mood, and overall health and fitness. But are meal replacement bars fit or fake?

The answer is both; however, there definitely is a negative side to meal replacement bars –– they are man-made food products with too many ingredients, including ones that are not conducive to health and fitness. Unlike nature, men and women have a tendency to mess things up, especially when it comes to creating food products. Moreover, meal replacement bars are packaged with “labeling hype” like healthy, diet, lean, lose weight, muscle building, and other misleading claims, yet, they fall short on many fronts. While I am sure these food-type products were designed with good intentions, the majority fail the most important trial of all, the “real and natural” purity food test. A good number of today’s meal replacement bars are "fake" and many fitness experts categorize them as "glorified candy bars" –– kind of like Snickers or Kit Kat on steroids.

Back in the early '90s when I was an avid bodybuilder, I promoted one of the first protein bars when it hit the market, the Power Bar (average rating), and oh my, they were very chewy. Since then, I have watched meal replacement bars evolve, with everyone but Grandma getting in on the craze and "bars" popping up everywhere. In analyzing most of the protein, energy, diet, and nutrition bars, not all of them are created equal when it comes to taste and, more importantly, nutritional value. The good news: you can find meal replacement bars that are healthy, those using real ingredients without all the added sugar, sodium, trans fats, and other unhealthy additives. Others also provide fiber and added vitamins and minerals to increase their value, and for those who are gluten intolerant you can find gluten-free meal replacement bars, which brings me to the “energy bar” winner, the Larabar, with the Cliff Bars scoring high points as well.

There are a few more things you should consider before "chewing on" your favorite bar along with its colorful packaging and hype:

• Most meal replacement bars are high in calories, contain added sugar (or high fructose corn syrup and other sweeteners), wheat and other flour sources, fat and hydrogenated oil, salt, milk products, nuts, cocoa and cocoa powder as well as other additives and preservatives. Some also contain caffeine and other stimulants like ginseng.

• Most meal replacement bars are very high in sugar (25 plus grams), still others contain sugar alcohols and nonnutritive sweeteners, which are intended to enhance flavor while lowing sugar and calorie content, however, in excess these ingredients can have certain side affects and some have the potential of becoming harmful to your body; as in hazardous to your health.

• So-called protein bars contain different types of protein blends like whey and casein (cow's milk), and soy, used in the Genisoy Bars (average rating), but the majority of bars contain a combination of all three.

Keep in mind that there are four main factors to consider when choosing the best meal replacement bars: nutrition, ingredients, taste, and purpose. The purpose of consuming a meal replacement bar can range from increasing your protein intake and energy requirement to a more complicated matter of losing weight. Other uses include gaining muscle mass and/or boosting strength and endurance for athletes. It could be as simple as providing yourself with a nutritious morning “fast food” breakfast, afternoon snack, or pre- or post- workout meal, or those times you may be craving something sweet.

Considering the vast variety of brands, categories, and flavors when it comes to meal replacement bars, finding and choosing quality is complicated. Taking the guesswork out of the equation can be helpful when seeking the "bar" that is right for you and AskMen.com has laid out a very useful guide, “Top 10 Energy & Protein Bars.”   Interestingly, diet.com put some meal replacement bars to their own test, where they analyzed bars based on calories, calorie density, saturated fat, trans fats, protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals, and gave their “Top 5 Worst Meal Replacement Bars.”

What matters most is whether or not the protein, energy, diet, or nutrition bar you choose is healthy and fit, because at the end of the day, one “bar” is not going to make or break your diet; what counts is the totality of your diet program coupled with your activity level. Which brings me to the most important rule when selecting a meal replacement bar for yourself or your family. Just like with all man-made food products you must read labels and according to WebMD, “If you want a healthy nutrition bar you have to read past the label” and that means the ingredients panel.

My advice: go for the fit, not fake meal replacement bars, those high in fiber (close to 5 grams or more); ones with fewer ingredients, low in sodium, no added sugars, artificial sweeteners, and other flavor enhancers, additives, and preservatives. Be leery and avoid those that have trans fat and are high in saturated fats, but don't be afraid of the "good fat" grams, except those that go over ten grams per bar. Better yet, unless you are an athlete, meal replacement bars are best used in an emergency situation, because you will be much happier and healthier than if you eat that dreaded Happy Meal.

More paramount, get your calories from natural, fresh, and wholesome foods, even when you are looking for convenient and portable meal ideas –– like an apple, banana, a mixed green salad, some on-the-go carrots or celery, a cup of natural trail mix with almonds and raisins. Take advantage of the “pure fast foods” that nature offers in variety of flavors and colors –– raw fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. I promise, you won't regret it (food allergies aside, of course)!

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About Christine Lakatos

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    This article has some good intentions in mind but with blanket statements like this: in excess these[artificial] ingredients can have certain side affects and some have the potential of becoming harmful to your body; as in hazardous to your health.
    you are merely resorting to fear tactics. That link only has information pertaining to abdominal gas and diarrhea AND only if you’re consuming quite a bit of artificial sweeteners or sugar alcohol but no evidence to suggest a hazard!

    Honestly, the fitness industry is hardly regulated to begin with and trainers giving health advice with no factual data to back it up makes me more nervous than consuming artificial sweeteners or some added calories. Plus, with the current science pointing to a fact that organic may not be healthier for you than conventional foods, I’m not so certain that this article will really help people.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/christine-lakatos/ Christine

    Dear Brian: first I used the word potential , which means “the possible, as opposed to actual”. I hardly constitute that as “fear tactics.”

    And he link says To this day, there is a great deal of controversy surrounding the safety of nonnutritive sweeteners. For every compelling positive argument in favor of using these sweeteners, there is an equally compelling negative argument opposing their use.

    If you read the entire report goes on (12 page report based on studies) after the sugar alcohols side affects and it shows BOTH sides to consuming artificial ingredients.

    Better to err on the side of caution and I did say in excess (the state or an instance of surpassing usual, proper, or specified limits)!

    And who mentioned organic in this article? I knew people like you would show up so that is why I used the words in “excess’ and “potential”.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/christine-lakatos/ Christine

    Foodie Me: Thanks for the extra good advice. There are so many bars that I could of made this article 20 pages, plus long, but trying to keep it as a “Fitness Flash.” And with new bars being created so often, it is better to have tools to analyze them.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/scott-deitche/ Scott Deitche

    Larabars rule.

    Though no bar comes close to tasting as good as Zone’s mint chocolate bars…(insert Homer Simpson drool picture)

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    “knew people like you would show up so that is why I used the words in “excess’ and “potential”.”

    People like me? Do you mean the people,like me, with an open mind who spend plenty of time on BC questioning authors who come to conclusions based on insufficient evidence?! You may have used words like “excess” and “potential” but even such basis for criteria on those terms could be controversial. I mean, there is no evidence to back up what could be construed as an excessive amount or what possible potential these sweeteners might have on a person.

    “To this day, there is a great deal of controversy surrounding the safety of non-nutritive sweeteners. For every compelling positive argument in favor of using these sweeteners, there is an equally compelling negative argument opposing their use.”

    Exactly!!

    “And who mentioned organic in this article?”

    I misread statements like:

    “they are man-made food products with too many ingredients”
    “Unlike nature, men and women have a tendency to mess things up, especially when it comes to creating food products”

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/christine-lakatos/ Christine

    B: Didn’t know you are a BC person. Hello.

    That is why I referred to that link Medicine.net, because there are two arguments when it comes to artificial sweeteners. But we can debate that all day long. And to your credit: if I could change anything in this article, as I added to my personal blog, it would be this; …potential (depending on which argument –– for or against — you subscribe to)…

    I just happen to be against Art Sweet in excess and try to steer my clients away from them because it has become prevalent in may diets today. Like sodium (natural and a good thing), way too much in the diet and not good either.

    You did misread that other statement. My point: an apple or broccoli, organic or not, is much healthier than man-made food products like food bars, the obvious junk food, fast food, so-called healthy muffins, cereals, wonder bread (LOL) and all the rest.

  • Rich

    Christine – I’m with you on the artificial sweeteners. That being said, bars sweetened with high fructose corn syrup and even evaporated cane juice are just as bad.

    Honey, molasses, and real maple syrup are better, but difficult to find in processed food, so I make my own [edited]. Still, it’s always better to eat a real meal, and larabars are no replacement for fresh fruits and veggies.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    Christine,

    I hear ya. I guess I just sometimes get sick of a lot of the anti-synthetic mentality I hear recently that I used to hear in the gym a while back(I wish I could go back soon…Oh these money woes) even to the point of anti-dairy(I love milk). Especially, when a lot of the supplements that the trainers(in general) suggest are synthetic. I agree that too much of anything, including natural sweeteners, can be a bad thing. For example, when I was on my weight-loss kick, Caffeine free Diet Pepsi saved my diet and I didn’t have any of those issues that Medicine.net lists. None of em! And I drank that stuff almost like water. Splenda saved me when regular sugar would spike my anxiety.. Let’s not forget what Norman Borlaug did with research( a little off topic but points to my feelings about man’s supposed “interference”) Ultimately, I feel there isn’t enough science either way,so, moderation is the key for me when it comes to any of this stuff.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/christine-lakatos/ Christine

    Ken: Love the recipe and like the fact that it uses stoneground spelt and not wheat flour. I will have to try it! You are so right about the high fructose corn syrup and all the rest of the sugar-type sweeteners. And thanks for your list of natural sweeteners. I like Agave Nectar too.

    Brian: yeah, supplements are another story entirely. And I too, drink diet coke, too often even for my own advice lol. I guess time will tell how much is too much when it comes to art sweets. Thanks for your input.

  • Adrian

    Altough these bars have a place in the market, I would still prefer to eat fruit rather than some manufactuered products such as these, but hey I just have a downer on any processed foods

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/christine-lakatos/ Christine

    MayoClinic.com

    High-fructose corn syrup is a common sweetener and preservative. High-fructose corn syrup is made by changing the sugar (glucose) in cornstarch to fructose — another form of sugar. The end product is a combination of fructose and glucose. Because it extends the shelf life of processed foods and is cheaper than sugar, high-fructose corn syrup has become a popular ingredient in many sodas, fruit-flavored drinks and other processed foods.

  • John Wilson

    I find it hard to believe that a factory-made bar is as good as simple food readily available from markets, such as pears, apples, bananas, etc.

    If you find it necessary to employ such bars then there is something wrong with the way you live your life and your daily endeavours.

    If you continue to appease dietary vices you will never lose them.

  • Wal Heinrich

    I really enjoyed your article, Christine, in many ways it matches my experience with nutrition bars. A couple of things to watch out for 1. high fructose corn syrup has been found to increase fat in lab rats far more than sugar of the same calorific value and 2. a lot of these bars contain genetically modified substances and there are scientists from around the world calling for a stop to GM food because independent scientific testing is increasingly finding it to be toxic. Unfortunately, in the US, you don’t get GM ingredients listed on the labels.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    @13,

    Please provide research that shows ,indefinitely, that genetically modified food is toxic. Again, just take a look at what Norman Borlaug did for Mexico by creating a new type of grain/rice.

    @12,

    “If you find it necessary to employ such bars then there is something wrong with the way you live your life and your daily [endeavors].”

    Seriously, man, go rent a freakin clue!!

  • http://walheinrich.com/ Wal Heinrich

    @14 Thank you for your interest. There are many references on the internet to GM food being toxic. Perhaps start here GM food is toxicl

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    @15,

    Oops, I guess I meant definite. Still, the scientist that you use a main resource said in her own words,“Until now, scientists cannot accurately say whether genetically modified (GM) products are dangerous for man.” and this was back in 2007. So, has anything changed in 3 years. I still feel that Norm Borlaug’s work shows more evidence that GM food isn’t bad.

  • http://walheinrich.com/ Wal Heinrich

    @16 I am not sure which of the 300 or so references you are referring to on the list I provided but here is a recent article that should make your hair stand on end. The hair growing in your mouth, that is :)
    GM Food Is Harmful
    Note that GM soy is added to many protein enhanced foods and nutrition bars.