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Posted: July 15, 2009

Sheila's Nutrition Digest Vol 17 - Energy Bars: What to look for, real food alternatives, and a great recipe

By Sheila Kealey

Sheila's Nutrition Digest
In this series, XC Ottawa (and OAC Racing Team) member Sheila Kealey will help athletes choose the best foods for performance and overall health. Sheila has a Masters in Public Health and works in the field of nutritional epidemiology as a Research Associate with the University of California, San Diego.

Energy bars are popular with many athletes because they are a quick and convenient source of calories that are easy to eat during workouts or as a handy snack. Traveling, training camps, and races are great times to have bars on hand, since it’s important to have a convenient supply of food close by to refuel your working muscles.

XC Ottawa athletes enjoy Clif Bars for their great taste, and organic, wholesome ingredients. Bars vary widely in their ingredients and nutrient makeup, so check the ingredient list and avoid the glorified candy bars! Remember to consume bars with the appropriate amount of fluid. Here are some general guidelines:

  • Before or during workouts you want something that digests well and fuels your muscles. Look for a bar high in carbohydrates (about 70% or more of calories from carbs). Individuals vary in what their gut can tolerate, and this might depend on your activity (i.e., many people have better tolerance cycling vs running) so see what works for you. For more intense workouts, some individuals might want to avoid bars with a lot of fiber since they could cause gastric distress, or avoid solid foods altogether and opt for sport drinks only.
  • Post workout: Again, bars rich in carbohydrates are what you need to replenish muscle glycogen. A higher protein bar may help your muscles recover, or consume your bar with a source of protein (e.g., glass of milk).
  • Snacks: Look for a bar with more protein (about 8g or more/bar) to maintain blood sugar levels. Also, choose healthier bars - like higher fiber bars and bars made whole grains rather than refined carbohydrates. Better still - skip the bar and choose real foods (see below).
  • Avoid any bars that contain trans fats, which have been linked to many diseases.

Can I eat a bar instead of a meal?
If you are stuck, eating an energy bar is better than not eating at all, but generally even the best-formulated bar can’t match the great nutrients you can find in whole, inexpensive foods.

Contrary to what some high profile advertisements allude to, energy bars won’t enhance performance any more than conventional foods, and they aren’t a necessary part of an athlete’s diet. In some cases, relying too much on these engineered foods can mean that you’re missing out on “real” foods and nutrients that are important for good health. Energizing your body with real foods provides a necessary variety of important nutrients, is more economical, and often tastes better. You do need to plan in advance, but it’s worth it. Here are some ideas:

Portable workout snacks (prepackage in small zipper bags): oatmeal or fig cookies, raisins, honey sandwich, breakfast cereal, graham crackers.

Post-Workout: Consider chocolate milk and 100% whole grain cereal and nonfat milk, which are simple foods that have proven to be as effective or better than specialized recovery products in several studies. A 4-to-1 ratio of carbohydrates to proteins is considered best for optimal for muscle recovery.

Snacks (also good post-workout options): Many of these combinations include protein, healthy fats, and important nutrients.

- Lowfat yogurt and fruit
- Lowfat cottage cheese and fruit
- Snack size can of tuna and whole grain crackers
- Ready-to-eat whole grain cereal and milk
- Dried fruit and nut mix
- Whole grain bread spread with peanut or almond butter
- Hummus with vegetables or whole grain pita
- Homemade fruit smoothie

You’ll find more ideas for refueling for recovery here.

Make Your Own Energy Bars
Consider making your own bars. You’ll be rewarded by some great treats to look forward to during your workout. Bake a batch and freeze, so that you have a good supply on hand.

This recipe is quite versatile – so create your own variation by modifying the dried fruit and nuts/seeds to suit your taste. These bars feature whole grains (oats and 100% whole wheat flour), are relatively low in fat, with most of the fat coming from healthful sources (nuts and seeds).

Sheila’s Quick and Easy Oatmeal Bars

1 1/2  cups whole wheat flour
3/4  tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
3 tbsp canola oil
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups oats
*1 cup dried fruit (your favourites – I like chopped dates, raisins, and/or cranberries)
*1/2 cup chocolate chips (optional, but I always include!)
*1/4 cup chopped nuts (e.g., almonds, walnuts)
*1/4 cup seeds (e.g., sunflower, pepitas [pumpkin seeds])
Vegetable Cooking Spray

* vary the quantity of these ingredients to suit your taste

1. Heat oven to 350°F.
2. In medium bowl, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt; mix well with fork or whisk.
3. In large bowl, combine sugar, oil, and eggs. Mix well. Stir in oats, dried fruit, chocolate chips (if using), nuts and seeds. Stir in flour mixture.
4. Spread dough onto bottom of 13x9-inch baking pan coated with cooking spray (spreading dough with wet hands is the easiest method). You can also bake these on cookie sheets (just form into 20-30 cookie shapes).
5. Bake or until light golden brown, about 20-25 minutes (for bars) or about 12-15 minutes (for cookies). Cool completely on wire rack. Cut into bars. Store tightly covered or freeze.

Nutrition Information (for 24 bars/cookies): 170 calories; 28 g carbohydrates; 4 g protein; 5 g fat; 3 g fiber, 182 mg potassium; 77 mg sodium; and 30 mg calcium.

Other Nutrition Digest articles are available HERE.

Sheila's Nutrition Digest Vol 16 - Superfoods for Athletes Series: Tomatoes
Sheila’s Nutrition Digest Vol 15 - Superfoods for Athletes Series: Blueberries
Sheila's Nutrition Digest Vol 14 - Can your eating habits affect global warming
Sheila’s Nutrition Digest 13 - Tips and Recipes for Traveling Athletes
Sheila's Nutrition Digest Vol 12 - Grabbing a Healthy Byte on the Internet: A Guide to Finding Nutritious Recipes
Sheila's Nutrition Digest Vol 11 - Chocolate – a Valentine’s tradition is good for the heart
Sheila's Nutrition Digest Vol 10 - Tips For Fighting Colds And Flu
Sports Nutrition: Sheila’s Nutrition Digest Vol. 9: Food Psychology - What is controlling your eating?
Sports Nutrition: Sheila’s Nutrition Digest Vol. 8 - Five Nutrition Myths Uncovered
Sports Nutrition: Sheila’s Nutrition Digest Vol. 7 – Fast Fuel for Busy Athletes
Sports Nutrition:Sheila's Nutrition Digest Vol. 6 - How to Assess Your Diet
Sheila's Nutrition Digest Vol. 5 - Beth Mansfield Interview (Part 2)
Sports Nutrition: Sheila's Nutrition Digest Vol. 4 - Beth Mansfield Interview (Part 1)
Vol 3. Beating the Bonk
Vol. 2 - Eat in Colours
Vol 1. Refueling for Recovery

This article originally appeared on the XC Ottawa website and is reproduced here with the permission of XC Ottawa and author Sheila Kealey.

For more information on XC Ottawa, visit their website :

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