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Diet & Nutrition

How to Choose the Best Energy-Boosting Bars and Gels

By The Bone, Muscle, and Joint Team at HealthHub from Cleveland Clinic

Contributor: Kylene Guerra, RD

Do you stand in the aisle of energy bars and sports gels wondering what to choose? When it comes to offering you the best health benefits and fuel for your sports performance, not all energy bars and sports gels are equal. Below, find tips to choosing the best ones for you.

Energy bars

Energy bars often serve as a quick, convenient fuel source between meals and while playing sports. When you’re looking at a bar, read the ingredient list first. You want to do this before you look at the nutrition facts panel because the macronutrient grams of protein, fat, and carbohydrate may seem normal, but if there are hidden ingredients behind these numbers, it could hurt your performance.

Here are a few ingredients you’ll want to watch out for before chomping down:

Fiber is great for you when you eat it during meals. However, if you eat a fiber-rich bar before or during a rigorous workout, your risk of gastrointestinal distress increases significantly. This is because fiber is hard for your body to break down. Aim for less than 3 grams of fiber per bar when you’re fueling for performance.

Sugar alcohols are common ingredients in energy bars because they have fewer calories than sugar. Manufacturers frequently use sorbitol, xylitol, isomalt, and mannitol. These sugar alcohols are helpful for an active person watching his or her weight, but if you do not routinely consume sugar alcohol, you can experience cramping, bloating and diarrhea, since our bodies digest sugar alcohols very slowly and because sugar alcohols aren’t fully broken down by our bodies. Sugar alcohol is safe to consume, but be sure to avoid excessive amounts at one time. Don’t exceed 6 grams of sugar alcohol the first time you try this product while exercising.

Green tea extract is another common ingredient in sport supplement bars because it can enhance thermogenesis — which means that this ingredient provides a slight increase in calorie burn. This increase is mostly due to its caffeine content. Although relatively safe to consume, this is not the best choice if you are a serious athlete who struggles to get enough calories. Many athletes have a hard enough time replenishing the calories they lose during a tough training session, and green tea extract compounds this problem. Athletes who need to keep their weight intact should avoid supplements with green tea as a main ingredient.

Energy gels

Energy gels are a cross between a sports drink and an energy bar. Their ability to provide immediate fuel to working muscles is what makes them so popular for athletes.

Here are a few tips to ensure success when you use them:

Be sure to take a few sips of water before and after using the gel to ease your digestion. Energy gels contain a 55 to 65 percent carbohydrate concentration vs. the typical 4 to 8 percent concentration commonly found in sports drinks. During high-intensity exercise, your body diverts blood away from the digestive tract to help your legs continue to move, therefore making the high concentration of carbohydrate difficult to digest.

If you’re using a sports gel within an hour of vigorous, longer term activity and want the most benefit, make sure it contains no more than 1.36 to 2.27 milligrams of caffeine per pound of your body weight. If you weigh 150 pounds, for example, you should keep your sports gel caffeine intake between 204 and 340 milligrams. If you are not accustomed to consuming caffeine, experiment with a small dose early in the day. Too high a dose may contribute to anxiety, irritability, increased urination and bowel movements, rapid increase in heart rate and insomnia.

No matter what you choose for a sport supplement, be sure to practice your fueling routine just as you would practice your sport. In order for any form of nutrition supplement to work to your advantage, it’s important anticipate your body’s reaction. This is the best way to avoid any unexpected or negative side effects.