A Quick Boost

Energy bars and drinks can provide portable, between-meal energy boosts for athletes on the go. But only if they know how and when to use them.

By Leslie Bonci

Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, is Director of the Sports Medicine Nutrition Program at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Health System, and a consultant to the University of Pittsburgh Department of Athletics, the Pittsburgh Steelers, Pittsburgh Ballet Theater, and several Pittsburgh-area high schools.

Training & Conditioning, 12.6, September 2002, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/tc/tc1206/quickboost.htm

Any product that promises to boost physical performance is going to grab the attention of athletes, and energy snacks are no exception. Energy bars and drinks are some of the latest “performance foods” to hit the consumer market. Energy bars and drinks may not be able to replace real meals, but many of them provide effective, vitamin-fortified snacks for athletes. This article defines the basic types of energy bars and drinks, the ingredients that many contain, and the best way to use them.

Most energy bars tip the scale in the 60-gram range, which is about twice the weight of a typical granola, cereal, or candy bar. They usually contain at least 25 grams of carbohydrate, 15 grams of protein, and five grams of fat for about 200 total calories. The main difference between energy bars and candy or granola bars is the presence of protein, added vitamins and minerals, and occasionally, herbal supplements.

Energy bars offer the athlete convenience and portability. They don’t have to be refrigerated, and they can be stuffed into a gym bag. But energy bars have their downsides. Many are more expensive by weight than the ingredients of a normal meal or even a candy bar. Also, some of these products contain saturated fat in the form of coconut oil or palm oil, or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, all of which are not good for cardiovascular health. Others contain herbs such as ephedra that many athletes might want to avoid. You may also want to steer clear of energy bars that contain sugar alcohols such as mannitiol, xylitol, and sorbitol, which can cause gas, bloating and diarrhea, none of which would be desired during a workout or competition.

When choosing one of these products, check out the list of ingredients, paying particular attention to the additives. If the product states that it is a dietary supplement and it has a supplement facts panel instead of a nutrition facts panel, there may be herbal supplements or other ingredients you weren’t expecting, such as ephedra or gingko biloba. Moreover, products that are billed as “energy” products may contain some form of caffeine.

Another area to consider is the vitamin and mineral content of your bar. If you use these products daily and also take vitamin or mineral supplements, you may be overdoing it with micronutrients.

Weight-conscious athletes need to consider calories as well. Some athletes need to consume extra calories during a distance run or other highly demanding exercise, and energy bars come in handy for that. But others may need to keep the calories down, such as a wrestler trying to make weight. Therefore, when reading the ingredients label, don’t forget to check for the serving size and caloric content. A single, sealed package may contain more than one serving. Also, be aware that some low-carbohydrate bars that are advertised to help one get lean can still pack a pretty powerful calorie punch.

There are many different brands of energy bars, but they can be divided into four basic types: high carbohydrate, high protein, “zone” bars, and bars for women.

High-carbohydrate energy bars are composed of at least 60 percent carbohydrate, with the primary ingredients being corn syrup or brown-rice syrup, grains, dried fruit, or fruit-juice concentrate. These bars may be advantageous as a snack an hour before exercise, during an extended race or workout, or between events. Energy bars should be consumed with eight to 10 ounces of fluid, because they are often dry or chewy.

High-protein energy bars are targeted toward bodybuilders and people who are trying to decrease body fat. As you would expect, these products contain a high amount of protein, very little carbohydrate, and a moderate amount of fat. Since protein is not an efficient fuel source for exercise, consuming these products before a competition or workout will not provide available fuel. However, they may be useful for athletes who are consistently deficient in protein intake, such as the calorie-conscious gymnast or wrestler, or the vegetarian runner.

Another useful application of high-protein bars is for athletes who do not like to eat large amounts of conventional protein-rich foods. For example, a 90-pound gymnast would probably need to eat at least 45 grams of protein a day during training. However, she may be unwilling to consume two glasses of milk, a three-ounce piece of chicken, and four or five servings of grains to meet daily protein needs. Yet a single high-protein bar could easily satisfy 50 percent of that athlete’s daily protein needs.

While all of these bars contain high amounts of protein, you should choose only bars with easily utilized forms of protein. Specifically, the protein in your bar should come from egg, soy, or milk (casein or whey). Some labels list hydrolyzed protein, which is of poor quality and does not contain all of the essential amino acids needed for muscle growth and repair.

Zone-type energy bars are combination bars with a 40-30-30 percent ratio of carbohydrate to protein to fat. They are often higher in fat than either the high-carbohydrate or protein bars, but they are lower in carbohydrate content. Advertisements for some of these products promote their so-called fat-burning properties. Be careful: this claim is unsubstantiated. With that being said, these products are still a better choice than pretzel or other snack foods because they contain a mix of nutrients.

Female-friendly is the newest category of energy bars. Marketed to women, they often are smaller in size than other energy bars. They also have additives such as soy, flax, and calcium that have health-enhancing effects for women. For the woman who is protein and calcium deficient, these bars may be a tasty, easy way to meet one’s daily needs without all the calories of some of the other products on the market.

Other energy-type bars. These types of bars are typically positioned with medical nutritional foods for older or rehabbing people. Some others are billed as healthy snacks or even candy. Nutritionally, they are not that different from high-carbohydrate energy bars. They are useful as a pre-exercise fuel source or as a pick-me-up during extended exercise.

Energy drinks capitalize on the idea that hydration and energy together in one product can be very attractive to the time-pressed athlete. Most energy drinks simply are a mixture of carbohydrate, water, and in some cases, caffeine. Some of these products contain electrolytes, which can be valuable before and during exercise to promote optimal hydration and more efficient recovery after exercise.

The energy in these drinks comes from carbohydrate, but the amount and form of the carbohydrate can make or break the product. Too much carbohydrate can cause gastrointestinal distress, whereas too little is useless. Glucose is the preferred carbohydrate form, because it is quickly absorbed and easily utilized by the athlete’s body. Conversely, products that contain primarily fructose or galactose for a carbohydrate source can upset the stomach, and will be much less effective than those containing glucose.

If you are looking for an energy boost along with hydration, you should also consider one of the standard sports drinks, which contain the carbohydrates and electrolytes that an athlete needs. In addition, sports drinks do not contain additives such as caffeine or ephedra.

The number of energy drinks on the market is increasing. However, they can be divided into three basic categories: caffeine-containing products, high-carbohydrate products, and high-protein products.

Caffeine-containing products have anywhere from 50 to 150 milligrams of caffeine per eight-ounce serving. In addition, they can contain less than one gram to 35 grams of carbohydrate, and from two to 135 calories per eight-ounce serving. The benefits of caffeine-containing energy drinks are questionable and vary widely from athlete to athlete, because caffeine can act as a diuretic.

High-carbohydrate products understandably provide the majority of their calories from carbohydrate. Many athletes use these drinks before events to boost their carbohydrate levels. However, if your athletes are interested in high-carbohydrate drinks, remember that large doses of carbohydrate before or during exercise can take longer to empty from the gut, thus preventing adequate absorption of intestinal fluid.

These products may be more appropriate to consume after exercise to replenish fluid and fuel. For example, an energy drink that supplies 50 grams of carbohydrate and 200 calories per eight-ounce serving would make a useful post-exercise recovery fuel and fluid in one neat package.

Protein-containing products range from 17 to 24 grams of carbohydrate, and 71 to 90 calories per eight-ounce serving. Typically, an eight-ounce serving of a high-protein energy drink also contains about 10 grams of protein. Like the high-protein energy bars, they are targeted toward bodybuilders. However, they are also useful for athletes who need to supplement their protein intake, but who do not want to eat large portions of eggs, yogurt, meat, and other high-protein foods.

You can’t beat the convenience of energy bars and drinks, but the hefty price tag and occasional surprise ingredients prove that the highest marks go to good old food for fueling the body. But when regular food is unavailable or impractical, many of these products provide an effective alternative.

Overall, athletes need to ask themselves what they think this product is going to do for them. If your athletes are relying on these products for a convenient between-meal energy boost, that’s fine. But if they plan to replace regular meals with energy bars and drinks, they would be wise to examine some of their other health habits such getting enough rest, training well, eating regularly, and optimally hydrating.

Sidebar: Side Effects

Some energy drinks contain ingredients that create a “triple negative” by causing undesirable side effects that can impair performance, driving up the price of the product, and being totally useless as an energy or performance booster. These ingredients include:

• Caffeine (including herbal forms such as guarana, mate, or kola nut)
• Ephedra (also called ma huang)
• Pyruvate (the amount in a drink is much less than the clinical dose)
• Gingko biloba (no impact on performance and the amount added to drinks is not regulated)
• Oxygen (this just drives up the price of the beverage. Breathe deeply instead)
• Medium-chain triglycerides (not necessary in an energy drink)
• Carnitine (does not promote fat loss as manufacturers claim)
• Glutamine (will not boost immune system or enhance performance)
• Bee pollen (athletes who are allergic to bees are in for a rude awakening with this one)
• Taurine (no effect on athletic performance)