Health

The ‘Health’ Bar You’re Better Off Without

Might be time to leave behind all those processed snacks and opt instead for fresh fruit and other choices

Grab a bar. Throw it in your bag. Unwrap — and nosh.

Eating out of a purse or backpack has its conveniences, but are these labor-saving foods really healthful — or are they “glorified” Snickers bars? (I can easily rationalize a candy-cum-nutrition bar, especially when it is $3 cheaper.)

As nutrition bars have transitioned into mainstream grocery stores with their superabundant choices, they have us hook, line, and sinker. We consume them regularly, while foods that come in natural wrappers, such as oranges or bananas, have taken the back seat.

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Understanding the logic behind consumer choices is not an easy process. A study in the Journal of Consumer Research called “Healthy Diets Make Empty Wallets” found that “consumers believe healthier food is more expensive than less healthy food” — exhibiting the powerful, and flawed, way we evaluate, rationalize, and purchase foods.

Nutrition bars have us hook, line, and sinker and we’re consuming them regularly.

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Consumers want on-the-go choices and many have become more selective about the trendy, wholesome ingredients they will consume. The RXBAR, with its niche, catchy marketing, highlights its main ingredients, in bold, on the front of the package. The peanut butter bar reads: “3 egg whites, 14 peanuts, 2 dates, no B.S.” It’s a bold move that has made the company not only unique, but successful.

Hands down, the “bar aisle” is one of the most confusing in the grocery store. Customers have glazed-over stares as they interpret the emphatic labeling: NON-GMO, PLANT-BASED, RAW, GLUTEN-FREE, ORGANIC, WHOLE-FOOD, HIGH-PROTEIN… Is one preferable to the other?

After purchasing something, we scratch our heads and wonder: Can I indulge in a nutrition bar for lunch on a day behind a desk — or grab one in desperation after a spin class during lunch hour and feel good about it?

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Processed “health” foods have their allure, in an easy, once-and-done kind of way: They’re packaged, no prep, ready to eat. However, they will never be an adequate substitute for freshly prepared foods, according to Toby Smithson, MS, RDN, LDN, CDE, and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

“I don’t suggest using bars as a meal replacement because you can’t get all the nutrition a meal can offer,” Smithson told LifeZette. “But some bars can be used as a snack to help tame your hunger in between meals.”

So it turns out my inner food critic was right — regardless of their wholesome ingredients, bars remain a far cry from a spinach salad with cranberries and chicken.

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“Some bars are packed with added sugars, providing 300 to 400 calories, which is more than a meal. Consuming those calories in a snack can lead to weight gain if an individual isn’t limiting these calories at another meal, or expending energy through exercise,” explained Shaina Greenspan, a Seattle-based registered dietitian.

So:

  • Start with reading the nutrition labels — understand what you are eating.
  • Greenspan’s favorites include LUNA Bar, KIND Bar, and LARABAR.
  • Try your hand at making homemade bars.

Rather than choosing haphazardly, look for a bar that meets your nutrition needs. “Keep in mind that all nutrition bars are not created equal. Some bars may be higher in protein, carbohydrate, or fat and calories,” Smithson told LifeZette.

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Take note of the total calories in a bar when snacking — especially if you’re burning off those calories through exercise.

And:

  • Choose bars with 15-24 grams of carbohydrates (with protein if possible).
  • Aim for 200 calories or less with a snack bar, at least three grams of fiber and five grams of protein.

Go for alternatives to bars, too, advises Smithson. Apples with almonds, graham crackers with nut butter, cheese sticks and whole grain crackers, pears with pistachios, a trail mix with peanuts and whole grain cereal, or Greek yogurt — all of these are healthy choices.

Jewels Doskicz is an Arizona-based registered nurse with 20 years of experience. A passionate patient advocate and health consultant, she has lived with Type 1 diabetes since she was 13. 

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