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The best way to provide nutrients, antioxidants, and macronutrients between workouts is through real foods. It’s often difficult and impractical, however, to lug around a grocery cart of these items while traveling. Given that, nutrition bars can be a convenient and appropriate replacement during these periods, and are a superior option to having nothing at all. This is particularly important to the athlete for whom frequent eating, stable blood sugar levels, and steady intake of sufficient protein and fat are paramount.
But as the shelves of any grocery store will attest to, the ever-increasing number of nutrition bar options can be overwhelming. In the face of all these options, how do you go about choosing a good nutrition bar to eat as a convenient snack? As an athlete, your best choice of nutrition bar is completely dependent upon when you are having it, relative to your workout(s).
The following are some quick guidelines to help you find the proper nutrition bar for periods between workouts: Times when you are in search of a quick and convenient snack. These guidelines do not apply to the best choice of a bar immediately before, or during a workout—another topic altogether. Any food you’re consuming, as a snack between workouts, and not to fuel a workout should:
1) Provide lean protein to facilitate soft-tissue recovery between workouts
2) Have a smooth, diluted, blood sugar response (low glycemic load), typically achieved by having some decent quantity of protein and fat, with minimal sugar
3) Provide minimal, if any, artificial sweeteners, due to unknown health concerns
4) Have low levels of saturated fat (less than 6 grams)
5) Provide some nutrient density through vitamins and minerals (even if fortified), to help promote good immunity, reduce free-radical damage, and improve overall health
6) Provide natural, organic ingredients whenever possible
With my athletes, I use a handy equation to determine which nutrition bars (or other labeled foods) are appropriate. This equation uses the information that appears on the nutritional label, making it a quick and easy calculation. We actually use this equation for any food we may want to eat during non-workout periods that don’t fit into the CORE Diet we follow—meaning foods with labels, and not lean meat, a fruit, vegetable, nut, or seed. We add the total sugar to total carbohydrates and then subtract fiber. We then take that number and divide it by the sum of total fat plus total protein. If the result of this is less than 2, the bar (or other non-core food) is OK to eat between workouts.
This equation attempts to magnify the blood sugar impact of the bar’s carbohydrates by double counting the sugars. It also tries to take advantage of the low blood sugar response of fiber by subtracting it from the carbohydrate count. We then divide by the combined fat and protein, because both have a diluting effect on blood sugar response, due to slowed digestion. This equation satisfies the first two guidelines in the list above. The remaining guidelines should be satisfied by inspection of the ingredient list and nutrition label.
The problem many endurance athletes face, particularly at the elite level, is that carbohydrates and grains are overly emphasized. As a result, they can end up displacing opportunities to have more nutrient dense, “core” foods during the day. Assuming an athlete sleeps approximately eight hours each night, they have about 16 waking hours, four to five of which are spent training and consuming vast amounts of refined sugars and grains. We don’t have much of a choice there. With that chunk of time being completely devoid of nutrient dense “core” foods, we really need to focus on these during the periods between workouts.
In summary, unless you are training, just about to train, or just finished training, your food choices should consist of “core” choices like lean meats, fruits, veggies, nuts, and seeds. In a pinch, choose a nutrition bar (or other food with a label—as long as it fits into the “core” equation described above.
Jesse Kropelnicki is an elite/pro level triathlon coach who founded QT2 Systems, LLC; a leading provider of personal triathlon and run coaching, as well as TheCoreDiet.com a leading provider of sports nutrition. He is the triathlon coach of professional athletes Caitlin Snow, Dede Griesbauer, Ethan Brown, and Tim Snow among others. You can track his other coaching ideas via his blog at www.kropelnicki.com.