How to Choose the Best Energy Bar for PCOS
My patients with PCOS often ask me what I think of energy bars. While my first choice is real food, there are times when an energy bar comes in handy. It’s kind of hard to eat a sliced apple with peanut butter when you’re running errands. But you know what can happen when you go too long without eating … major carb cravings! So I think of energy bars as a good back up option. You can keep them in your car or your desk at work. Read on to the low down on how to choose a bar and stay tuned for my blog post next week on “My Top 12 Picks for PCOS – Friendly Energy Bars”.
The question is – which bar? Check out the variety of energy bars at my local health food store – Matter of Health. Even I was overwhelmed!
Some are glorified candy bars and others loaded with ingredients you can barely pronounce. Should you look for a bar that’s low carb, high protein, gluten free, or “all natural”? It can be tricky because when manufactures cut back on one nutrient (i.e. carbs), they tend to add in other ingredients (i.e. artificial sweeteners). Luckily there are numerous healthy ones to choose from. Read to learn about what I look for when recommending energy bars to my patients with PCOS.
Considerations for a PCOS- Friendly energy bar:
1. Moderately low in carbs. Some bars can pack in over 50 grams of carbs. While this might be helpful if you’re in the middle of a 40 mile bike, it’s not great for PCOS. I often recommend bars that have 20 grams of carbs or less. But don’t just pay attention to total carbs – look at the type of carb as well as other ingredients. Sugar from corn syrup or agave is obviously not as nutritious as sugar from apricots!
*Note: some companies use the term “net carbs”. (see the label) This is when they subtract the total fiber and sugar alcohols from the carb grams. So they add in a lot of added fiber and maybe sugar alcohols (used as a sweetener – see below) to make the carb content look lower. At this time, there is no legal definition as per the FDA for net carbs. It is true that fiber and sugar alcohols have less of an impact on blood sugar and insulin as compared to other carbs. However I wouldn’t say it has NO effect. For example, when counseling people with diabetes who take insulin and have to be pretty accurate with their carb intake, we sometimes suggest to subtract 1/2 of the fiber if over 5 gram as well as sugar alcohols from the total carbs. Women with PCOS don’t have to be this accurate!
2. Good source of fiber. I recommend a bar that contains at least 5 grams of fiber. Fiber helps keep you feeling full, lowers cholesterol, helps slow rise and fall of blood sugar, and feeds the “good” bacteria in your gut. Some fiber is found naturally in ingredients including oats, nuts, whole grains while some fiber is added in (i.e. inulin, chicory, corn fiber, etc). Both fibers have health benefits. BUT – more is not better especially if you have a sensitive gastro-intestinal system. For example, check
out the label on this No Cow bar – 19gm fiber. Yikes! I personally don’t love the way these bars taste. Pic credit
3. Low in added sugar. While the new food labels listing “added sugar” haven’t come out yet, you can look for added sugars in the ingredient list. Added sugars include honey, agave, fruit juice concentrate, coconut nectar, etc. And “organic” added sugars aren’t any healthier! They have a similar effect on raising blood sugar and insulin and promoting inflammation.
4. Ideally don’t contain sugar substitutes (also called non-nutritive or zero calorie sweeteners). There are 2 kinds of zero calorie sweeteners – artificial (i.e. sucralose) and natural (i.e stevia, monk fruit). Most bars – unless they are savory – need some kind of a sweetener to make them taste good. So manufacturers either use dried fruit (which is healthiest but can drive up the carbs) or use a zero calorie sweetener to keep the carb content low.
– I am not a fan of artificial sweeteners as some studies suggest they may affect the microbes in the gut, which in turn can impair some people’s ability to process glucose.
– I prefer stevia over artificial sweeteners, yet some studies are suggesting that even stevia may alter gut bacteria in a negative way! More studies are needed.
So in a nutshell, natural sweeteners like dried fruit are the healthiest choice. However, if it makes the bar too high in carbs, I’d prefer monk fruit. But keep in mind because monk fruit is relatively new to the mass market, there are no scientific studies on the effects of long-term use.
5. Contain moderate amounts of fat. Gone are the days when fat is “bad”. I actually prefer a bar that has at least 8 grams of fat, preferably from nuts or seeds. Fat helps help you feeling full longer. In addition, it doesn’t cause insulin to be secreted and has no effect on blood sugar. Consuming adequate fat is especially important for PCOS as it can help prevent carb cravings.
6. Look for a bar with nuts. Studies have shown nuts decrease risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, aid in weight management and improve insulin resistance. So if you have PCOS, you should go “nuts over nuts”!
7. Pay attention to calories. While I tend to focus more on food quality than calories, calories still count if you are watching your weight. Some of these healthy bars pack in 300 calories. If you will be eating the bar as a snack, look for one that is 125 – 200 calories (especially if you are trying to control your weight). If your favorite bar has more calories than this, I would recommend eating only 1/2 of it.
8. Decent source of protein. Protein helps keep you feeling full longer and has little if any effect on blood sugar. In addition, it helps to repair muscles after working out. I usually recommend a bar that contains at least 10 grams of protein. You pick the type of protein you want: plant based or whey. While I’m not opposed to soy in PCOS, I do recommend keeping your intake moderate and choosing unprocessed non-GMO when possible. Many high protein bars have added soy protein isolate or soy isoflavones to bump up the protein content. I’m not a huge fan of this type of soy.
9. Digestive issues.If you find yourself getting super bloated from energy bars, you aren’t alone! It’s estimated about 20% of the population has IBS. And even if you don’t have it, certain ingredients found in bars – such as inulin, chicory fiber, dates, honey, etc can cause bloating. Studies have shown that many women with PCOS have an altered gut microbiome – so it’s possible that more women with PCOS may have IBS (not 100% sure on this one). Bars that are low in FODMAPS (fermentable carbs) would be appropriate for someone with IBS. Examples: 88 Acres, Fodly Bars, BoBo’s Oat bars.
10. Other considerations: some women prefer bars that are GF, non-GMO, plant based, vegan, paleo. This is a matter of personal preference.
11. Listen to your body.Find one that is tasty and makes you feel good after eating it. If your favorite tasting bar exacerbates carb cravings, find a new one! Or if they don’t satisfy you at all, find a “real food” snack choice instead.
12. Lastly, they are not a replacement for real food. While energy bars are a convenient snack, real food provides you with additional nutrients that are not found in processed foods. I would not recommend getting into the habit of eating energy bars on a regular basis. They should mainly be used as a back up when you can’t get to real food!
Look for next week’s blog post where I share my 12 favorite energy bars for PCOS
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I especially love problem-solving, whether it’s helping women defeat issues plaguing them for years, helping a busy executive find practical ways to get heart healthy, or providing tips to help you reverse diabetes. That’s why I’m on a constant quest to expand my knowledge by staying on top of the latest research.