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Long ago, native peoples of North America made their high-energy fuel called pemmican by drying game meats and then mixing it with rendered fat and dried berries. Today, athletes can simply swing by the supermarket, health food shop, or even the gas station for a more convenient source of compacted energy-to-go in the form of nutrition bars. There is now a dizzying array of energy bars on store shelves, each with its own hook. Some tempt you with a promise to fuel your active pursuits, spur muscle growth, or provide a complete meal in a hurry. Healthy bars used to be an oxymoron. But now a new generation of packaged nutrition bars have evolved for the better and are now, well, raising the bar. Not only are many easy on the taste buds, but the best nutrition bars are increasingly crammed with wholesome ingredients that can bolster your nutrition and performance. But with so many choices on store shelves, it can be daunting for health-conscious athletes to choose the right one. Let us help guide your bar journey. Here are the best nutrition bars that work for any situation you may find yourself in during the day.
One note: Since nutrition bars are so convenient, it’s easy to rely on them a bit too often, especially if you’re not fond of cooking. But no matter how healthy the ingredients, bars should never make up a big portion of a diet. Use them only as a supplement to a healthy, whole-foods based diet and not a way to cut corners when it comes to proper nutrition.
Best Nutrition Bars for Breakfast
Energy bars can be something of a meal cheat code for triathletes—when you’re pressed for time or simply feel to beat down to even make toast they can serve as a tempting meal replacement.
For a bar to serve as something that approaches a “real” meal it should not be too stingy in calories and needs to have a good balance of macronutrients—carbs, protein, and fat—so it helps meet your nutritional needs and has staying power. And take note of added sugars since overall most people should be cutting back on those.
Sans Coconut Almond Butter Meal Bar
$45 for a box of 12 bars, amazon.com
Calories: 380; Carbs: 36g; Protein: 14g; Fat: 24g
Proving that sometimes less is more, this whole-food based bar contains no added sugars and even sneaks in some spinach without your taste buds being the wiser. Egg whites boost protein, coconut offers tropical taste (after all, you didn’t get your beach vacation this winter), and the 8 grams of fiber are huge for a bar. Bonus: their soft, moist texture won’t leave you running for the nearest spigot.
Bobo’s Stuff’D Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Oat Bar
$30 for a box of 12, amazon.com
Calories: 330; Carbs: 38g; Protein: 7g; Fat: 17g
Who wouldn’t crave a bar that tastes like oatmeal stuffed with peanut butter? Equally perfect for an on-the-go breakfast as it is for a road trip. The 6 grams of fiber in each bar go a long way in helping you reach your daily quota and keeping the hunger monster at bay.
Ohi Super Green
$28 for a box of 8 bars, ohifoodco.com
Calories: 270; Carbs: 17g; Protein: 10g; Fat: 19g
Almonds, a quartet of seeds, and cocoa nibs unite for a bite that delivers a little satisfying crunch. Spirulina and chlorella greens add a nutrition punch and Insta-appeal. The suggestion to stash the bars in the fridge is a tip-off that it’s fresher than most others.
Perfect Bar Blueberry Cashew
$24 for a box of 8 bars, amazon.com
Calories: 310; Carbs: 29g; Protein: 12g; Fat: 18g
Buttery cashew butter is paired with real blueberries (not lab created blueberry flavor) in this macro-balanced bar. Much of the protein hails from egg powder instead of engineered protein powder and the infusion of a whole food powder that includes everything from flax to carrot to rosehip is a nice nutritional bonus.
Over Easy Peanut Butter Breakfast Bar
$25 for 9 bars, overeasyfoods.com
Calories: 220; Carbs: 25g; Protein: 10g; Fat: 11g
A great find for peanut butter fanatics, what’s easy to swallow about these “breakfast” bars is the reserved ingredient list that includes nothing more than organic oats, peanuts, honey, peanut butter, tapioca fiber, egg whites, vanilla extract, and sea salt. There is enough protein and fiber here to help keep hunger at arm’s length.
Best Nutrition Bars for Snacking
A packaged bar can fill a pressing need when hunger strikes and you need something quick before that Zoom meeting. But being deskbound is not the same as running for hours, so the demands on your body are different. That means a snack bar you’ll nibble on between meals should not be a calorie bomb— ideally, go with a bar that tops out at about 200 calories.
Bars that have some protein, healthy fats and/or fiber are great for in-between meals or workouts since they are slower to digest offering up a more satiating bite.
Health Warrior Chia Bar Banana Nut
$17.99 for a box of 15 bars, healthwarrior.com
Calories: 100; Carbs: 17g; Protein: 3g; Fat: 5g
As the name implies, salubrious chia seeds are the leading ingredient here so under the wrapper is plenty of body-benefiting omega-3 fats. You’ll be forgiven for thinking you’re snacking on banana bread, but in this case with only 2 grams of added sugar and a bigger shot of hunger-smashing dietary fiber–5 grams in a bar.
Bob’s Red Mill Peanut Butter Jelly & Oats Bob’s Bar
$7 for a box of 5 bars, amazon.com
Calories: 180; Carbs: 24g; Protein: 6g; Fat: 7g
High on school-lunch nostalgia, this nutty granola-esque bar leads with wholesome peanuts and whole-grain oats and is loaded with jammy, peanut butter flavor that tastes homemade.
Wild Zora Taco Pork Meat & Veggie Bar
$34.80 for a box of 12 bars, amazon.com
Calories: 130; Carbs: 10g; Protein: 7g; Fat: 7g
Offering a welcomed savory respite from sweet-tasting bars, think of this meat-based bar made with pork, vegetables, and dried fruit as tender jerky replete with zesty zing. Snack time will taste like a trip to a taco truck.
Undressed Chipotle Cranberry Salad Bar
$34.95 for a box of 12 bars, eatundressed.com
Calories: 180; Carbs: 15g; Protein: 5g; Fat: 13g
Keeping with the savory theme, this uniquely flavored vegan bar with a spicy kick can help you get your greens, no salad bowl required. Cranberries keep the dehydrated kale and spinach from turning things too earthy and almonds make the bar fatty in a good way. The only downside is that it’s a tad dry so keep a glass of H20 nearby.
Lupii Tahini Lemon Cranberry
$34.95 for a box of 12 bars, amazon.com
Calories: 190; Carbs: 21g; Protein: 9g; Fat: 7g
You didn’t know that you needed lupini beans in your life until now. These protein-rich legumes form the backbone of a modest five-ingredient bar that includes trending tahini and dials down the sweetness in favor of unapologetically flaunting its tartness.
Best Nutrition Bars for Before a Workout
Nobody enjoys starting a workout with a growling tummy, so wolfing down a bar before showtime can quickly quell hunger and provide a last-minute energy blast. Before working up a sweat you’re typically looking for a bar that’s going to edge higher in carbohydrates to top up energy reserves so you’re ready to perform like a pro. Be wary of too much fat or fiber since these can slow digestion to gunk up your system and cause, you know, runner’s trots. If you’ve eaten a meal within the last 2 to 3 hours you shouldn’t require a nutrition bar with much more than 200 calories. And while most sports dietitians advise eating a bar 30 to 60 minutes before a workout, exercise intensity and duration—and your own individual digestion nuances—are factors that could affect this recommendation along with the exact macronutrient make-up of your bar of choice.
Nature’s Bakery Fig Bar Raspberry
$6 for a box of 6 bars, amazon.com
Calories: 200; Carbs: 38g; Protein: 3g: Fat: 5g
A tender crust and a sweet-tart fruity stuffing come together in a bar that is a modern-day upgrade to ye-olde Fig Newtons. Gluten-free versions are also available. Your kids will be pleased if you sneak one in their lunch box.
Purely Elizabeth Original Ancient Grain Granola Bar
$6 for a box of 5 bars, amazon.com
Calories: 130; Carbs: 19g; Protein: 3g; Fat: 5g
We like the short, recognizable ingredient list in this satisfying granola in bar form. Quinoa and chia seeds up the nutritional ante while a whisper of cinnamon makes it feel like pre-run comfort food.
Zenb Sweet Potato Veggie Sticks
$30 for a box of 10 bars, zenb.com
Calories: 160; Carbs: 18g; Protein: 4g; Fat: 7g
Sweet potato provides a “clean” source of carb energy while the addition of warming spices, almonds, and a touch of date syrup make each bite taste reminiscent of sweet potato pie. With slightly more fat you may need to back out how close you eat this before hopping on the saddle.
Best Nutrition Bars for Training
Bars can provide a welcome respite for your taste buds from gels and gummies while on the road or trail. When you are pushing the pace and working up a sweat you want to reach into your jersey pocket for a nutrition bar made with a higher percentage of calories from carbohydrates than protein or fat. Carbohydrates are what muscles crave during exercise since they are more efficiently transformed into energy than fat or protein, particularly when intensities start to pick up. A general rule of thumb for the best nutrition bars for training is that at least 60 percent of the calories of a bar should hail from carbs, ideally in easily digested forms such as dried fruit or honey (read: go easy on fiber) to allow for a quicker hit of energy and to side-step gastro woes. But some people’s digestive systems can handle more protein and fat during exercise, particularly during long, epic affairs, so it’s essential to experiment ahead of an important race or workout to figure out what works best for you. And no close-to-bonking triathlete wants to rip open a package only to find chocolatey goo, so it’s best to steer clear of bars with any sort of chocolate or faux yogurt coating that is prone to melting. A little bit of sodium can help offset sweaty electrolyte losses.
Just remember that most people have enough stored fuel in the body to support workouts of 60- to 90-minutes at an easy to moderate intensity, which means you won’t need to inhale a bar on the run. But if you’re planning a long run or ride of 90 minutes or more, especially one that includes high-intensity efforts over the 60-minute mark, bringing along a bar can help rev your engine for the back half of a workout.
KIND Healthy Grains Vanilla Blueberry
$10 for a box of 15, amazon.com
Calories: 140; Carbs: 24g; Protein: 3g; Fat: 4.5g
Nearly 70 percent of the calories in these blueberry-studded multi-grain bars hail from energy-boosting carbs to help power you to the finish line. Bonus points for staying deliciously moist over the long haul so it won’t suck the moisture out of your mouth.
That’s It Fruit Bar Apple + Banana
$25 for a box of 12 bars, amazon.com
Calories: 100; Carbs: 28g; Protein: 1g; Fat: 0g
Made with just apple and banana (go figure!) this is your solution to nearly pure energizing carbs when hitting your stride without the risk of reaching for a mashed banana from your jersey pocket.
Probar Bite Mixed Berry
$18 for a box of 12 bars, amazon.com
Calories: 140; Carbs: 22g; Protein: 5g: Fat: 6g
The tapioca syrup supplies tummy-friendly fast-digesting carbs to help keep you ahead of the pack. Cashew butter lends the bar an appetizing creamy mouthfeel while also helping tone down the sweetness–a good thing if you have already pounded back your fill of saccharine sports drinks and gels.
Best Nutrition Bars for Recovery
Big workouts require big amounts of after-nutrition. Even though triathlon disciplines are endurance in nature, you’re still going to suffer some muscle damage from training. So a bar that supplies 10 grams or more of protein can help kickstart muscular repair. Post-workout you want to reach for a bar that is also not stingy on the carbs since you need these to replenish spent energy stores. No need for lots of fat or fiber since immediately post-workout the goal is to digest things quickly so nutrients get into your bloodstream nice and fast for improved recovery.
Vega Sport Crispy Mint Chocolate Protein Bar
$30 for a box of 12 bars, amazon.com
Calories: 300; Carbs: 26g; Protein: 20g; Fat: 11g
Rice and pea protein pair up to form a complete plant-based protein to light the switch for muscle recovery, while the antioxidants in tart cherry powder may help tame post-exercise muscular inflammation. The mint adds a welcoming freshness to the overall chocolaty flavor profile.
Rxbar Banana Chocolate Walnut
$26 for a box of 12 bars, amazon.com
Calories: 210; Carbs: 25g; Protein: 12g; Fat: 9g
For a brand that is known for announcing the ingredients on their sleeves, it’s hard to find a ‘cleaner’ bar to help you recharge. Dates will help restock your drained glycogen stores and egg whites offer up the necessary muscle-building high-quality protein. Then the nuts, banana and chocolate team up to make the bar taste awesome which is important if your post-exercise appetite is waning.
Bonk Breaker Cookies & Cream
$28 for a box of 12 bars, amazon.com
Calories: 200; Carbs: 26g; Protein: 10g; Fat: 7g
Think of this as an Oreo cookie in recovery bar form. Full of crisp cookie chunks (yum!), the 2.5-to-1 carb-to-protein ratio is just what the sports dietitian ordered to spearhead muscular recovery in terms of repairing battle-worn muscle and replacing energy stores you tapped into.
Best Nutrition Bars for Dessert
You are already noshing on bars elsewhere in your day, so why not dessert? Indeed, the right nutrition bar can feel like an end-of-day treat but deliver a lot more nutrition than your standard cookie or a slice of cake. These best nutrition bars for dessert should be enjoyed when you are in the throes of a high-volume training block when your body can benefit from additional daily calories.
Core Bar Dark Chocolate Cherry
$24 for a box of 8 bars, corefoods.com
Calories: 240; Carbs: 32g; Protein: 5g; Fat: 11g
The cherries and dark chocolate in this oat-based bar make it feel like you are eating a decedent slice of black forest cake minus the frosting. Much of the sweetness comes from dates not heavily processed sugar, cashews supply heart-healthy fat and probiotics are good news for your gut.
Earnest Eats Apple Ginger
$21.50 for a box of 12 bars, amazon.com
Calories: 200; Carbs: 32g; Protein: 5g: Fat: 8g
Like apple pie in square bar form. We could go on about the nutritional virtues including whole grain oats, fruit and nutrient-dense almond butter, but it’s the chewy bite and ginger zing that will have you coming back for more.
Justin’s Dark Chocolate Chip Almond Butter Protein Bar
$2.29 per bar, justins.com
Calories: 230; Carbs: 11g; Protein: 10g; Fat: 16g
These almond butter-based refrigerated bars are the perfect option whenever a cookie craving strikes. Sweetened with organic honey, the lofty protein proves your dessert can also help build muscle. Pro tip: nuke the unwrapped bar for about 15 seconds for a treat that’s reminiscent of warm chocolate chip cookie dough.
Matthew Kadey, M.S., R.D., is an author and journalist who specializes in sports nutrition and is the recipient of the 2013 James Beard Award for Food Journalism.