Minnow info

Can Energy Bars replace Real Food?

by Shelley Downing, editor of idvFitness.com. The information for this article was reported from the American College of Sports Medicine Meeting held in Indianapolis, IN, in June, 2001.

Looking for a competitive edge? A few more vitamins, the right minerals and you hope to take your 10K time down a few minutes. Enter the advent of engineered foods, or what nutritionists like to call "functional foods." They can deliver some added health benefits, but are they good for you? Just how many PowerBars or Balance Bars should you eat in one day?

"There are no magic ingredients in energy bars," says Nancy Clark, a sports nutritionist from Brookline, MA. "The magic is that athletes are eating something instead of nothing before they work out." Clark says that any pre-exercise food is better than no food and energy bars are about the quickest and easiest carbohydrates and calories you can eat. So, you eat one for mid-morning snack, one for lunch and another before your evening workout. Is there a danger in eating three or more bars a day?

Clark says yes, "The problem is that bars are not whole foods and they are displacing whole foods in our diets."

Four PowerBars are about the equivalent of one half of a pizza. And Clark would rather you eat the pizza. Her suggestion is that if you're going to eat an energy bar for lunch, then eat it with some real food too. Eat a banana or a yogurt with your energy bar to get the benefits of whole food.

And some controversy has begun to stir over the high intake of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants added in the energy bars. "A high intake of minerals creates imbalances. It wouldn't surprise me if we start to see some case studies where over-nutrition is found in regards to too many minerals," Clark says of athletes eating too many engineered energy bars.

Baby Boomers spend 10 percent of their income on food and 10 percent of that population chooses their food to improve athletic performance, says Mitch Kanter, a physician from the Bell Institute of Health and Nutrition in Minneapolis, MN, who also works for General Mills. Athletes are beginning to realize that the foods they eat make a difference in their workouts each day and that it cuts their chances of getting cancer by as much as 30 percent, so they expect more from their foods.

Food manufacturers play on this logic and have begun enhancing all sorts of foods from orange juice to plain old pasta. And genetic foods with isolated soy and whey proteins may actually give you a higher quality of amino acids and proteins than non-engineered foods. The thing to remember is that engineered food is a big business too, says Kanter. Last year PowerBar had $142 million in sales. Companies feed on your desire to enhance your athletic prowess as a way to make money.

Clark says there is really no advantage to eating engineered foods when you have a regular, balanced diet. You should not be replacing whole foods with gels and bars, she cautions.

Besides, just because it's expensive doesn't mean it's better. If you're looking to add protein in your diet, Clark suggests adding a packet of Instant Breakfast and some powdered milk to a milk drink versus eating a Met Rx bar. The difference is .16 cents per 100 calories versus $1.07 per 100 calories for the bars.

Another suggestion from Clark -- try Pop Tarts or Peppermint Patties instead of PowerBars. Peppermint Patties have almost identical carbohydrates to PowerBars and have less fat than a Hershey or Snickers bar. Besides, Peppermint Patties would be a refreshing change considering the dryness and blandness of some energy bars.