Raising the Bar

Nutrition bars are crowding store shelves everywhere. Many are nothing more than candy bars, repackaged with a “healthy” twist. Should you consider using them if you’re eating on the run?

Several types of nutrition bars are available on the market. They might not be interchangeable, even though their carbohydrate content is similar.


• Meal replacement bars are designed to replace a 300- to 400-calorie meal and often include 15 or more grams of protein.

• Snack bars are marketed for eating between meals, so they usually contain less than 300 calories. They may be used to replace a meal if supplemented with low-fat milk, yogurt, or fruit.

• Carbohydrate-controlled bars are often marketed to athletes, people following low-carbohydrate diets, and people trying to lose weight. They tend to be high in protein, with 15—30 grams per bar, and many are high in sugar alcohols, a type of carbohydrate that is incompletely digested, so it doesn’t raise blood glucose as much as “regular” forms of carbohydrate.

• Diabetes bars are targeted toward people with diabetes and are intended to either replace a meal, prevent hypoglycemia (low blood glucose), or prevent both hypoglycemia and high blood glucose. Those designed primarily to prevent hypoglycemia often contain uncooked cornstarch, which is absorbed slowly and acts as a steady source of glucose over several hours. This is particularly useful for those trying to avoid low blood glucose overnight or before and/or after exercise.

Resistant starch and fiber are key ingredients in diabetes bars designed to prevent both hypoglycemia and high blood glucose. Resistant starch and fiber are not broken down into glucose and absorbed in the small intestine, so they do not cause an increase in blood glucose and insulin levels after meals (although other ingredients in the bar do).

Don’t use diabetes bars to treat hypoglycemia; they contain fat and protein and aren’t formulated to raise blood glucose level quickly.

Know the nutrition value of the bar you are considering. Some general guidelines from the latest edition of Choose Your Foods: Exchange Lists for Diabetes (published by the American Diabetes Association and American Dietetic Association) are the following:

• A 1 1/3-ounce meal replacement bar = 1 1/2 carbohydrate choices and 0—1 fat choices.

• A 2-ounce meal replacement bar = 2 carbohydrate choices and 1 fat choice.

Note the fat source in the nutrition bar. Look for one with 0 grams of trans fat, and avoid those that contain palm kernel or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. Choose a bar with less than 5 grams of total fat and less than 3 grams of saturated fat.

A single nutrition bar doesn’t have all the nutrients your body needs, so don’t rely on them for meal replacements on a daily basis.