Those on the outside looking in often believe that the multitudes of fit, muscular individuals who stride haughtily through gyms became so by using the most widely accepted nutritional strategy for looking better: eating less. While that may be a great starting point for the wide waisted looking to shed a few pounds, it couldn’t be further from reality for those looking to increase their “muscle” or “performance.” On the contrary, training regularly at high levels of intensity requires more food — we call it fuel — eaten more often.
It boils down to a simple metabolic truth: The more muscle your body carries, the more calories it burns. So as you build strength and add muscle, your body actually needs more food. This natural response should be embraced if you expect to take your body to the next level, which is why you are doubtless a devout user of all things Tupperware and Ziploc, packing and toting meals to every engagement.
But when your bounty runs out or when a trip to the microwave is simply not an option, you can fuel your body with the right bar or RTD (ready-to-drink) product. However, as with any other meal choice, careful consideration must be given to goals and timing. Get ready for a crash course in on-the-go nutrition.
The Need For Speed
Walk into The Vitamin Shoppe and you’ll find shelves and coolers replete with grab-and-go bars and drinks for nearly every goal from fat loss to focus to plain old force production. Calorie counts vary widely, as do macronutrient ratios, and there is a flavor to suit nearly every palate. The market may be saturated, but ultimately, when looking for a nutritional option that can be consumed outside a kitchen, you’re going to be choosing between two options: bars and RTDs.
Each bar serves up an array of benefits for the exerciser on the go, and each one is different. Some are considered high-protein bars, containing anywhere between 20 and 40 grams of the nutrient, and are ideal for tending to muscles in the absence of a giant steak. Others are considered energy bars because they provide an ample supply of slower-digesting complex carbohydrates to fuel exercise or faster-digesting carbs to refuel glycogen stores postworkout. Meal-replacement bars are the “big daddy” of the bar universe because they are more calorically dense than their counterparts and provide a full and mostly balanced portion of protein, carbs and fat. The right meal-replacement product can be a good option between sit-down sessions, and you can always break off a portion of it, saving the rest for another day, to keep calories in check.
Those who are protein-shaker dependent appreciate these products the most, particularly on those days when the shaker cup accidentally gets left in the dishwasher. These pre-mixed beverages allow lifters to simply remove a lid and guzzle — no powders, measuring or shaking necessary. RTDs generally mirror the bars’ breakdown, with higher-protein, higher-carb and meal-replacement products available, and they have the added bonus of being liquid, which means they digest more quickly than bars do.
RTDs are more likely than bars to contain doses of supplements you’re likely already taking to boost workouts, compounds like creatine, caffeine, glutamine, branched-chain amino acids, beta-alanine and arginine. And they’re also more likely to be formulated to fit a particular time, which can be handy when you’re heading to the gym and realize you’ve left not only your shaker cup but also your nitric-oxide booster and branched-chain bottles at home.
Staring at shelves overflowing with colorful, convenient and potentially tasty nutritional alternatives can be a downright overwhelming experience. So how is a devoted gym rat to know what’s worth the $3 to $5 you’re gonna fork over for this kind of expedience? Your basic, Cliffs Notes strategy is to carefully (and quickly) weigh five specific variables:
1. Know Your Macros
We don’t mean just knowing that the macronutrients are protein, carbohydrates and fat (though that’s critical). We mean know your macros. As in, how many grams of each do you require every day? And how many will you consume with each meal? Protein is the stuff that your muscles are made of, which is why you should be taking in roughly a gram per pound of bodyweight per day, mostly from lean sources like turkey breast, chicken breast, lean beef, eggs and jerky. But carbohydrate needs vary depending on goals and exercise intensity, with a good rule of thumb being to aim for 1 to 2 grams per pound of bodyweight per day, mostly from slow-digesting, fibrous sources such as veggies, oatmeal, whole-grain breads, tortillas and pastas. Fat, contrary to what most people think, is essential for muscle growth, hormone levels and joint health. For most, 0.5 grams per pound of bodyweight per day of healthy fat from sources such as olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds is ideal.
Once you know what you’ll be getting foodwise, you can see where a bar or RTD can fill in the rest.
2. Comprehend Your Calories
Yes, calories matter, whether you’re looking to get lean or not. Those who frequently use bars or RTDs to bridge gaps between meals can easily exceed their number of required calories by hundreds per day. And while the act of counting calories is tedious, it’s still a good idea to be somewhat aware of how many you need and how many you’re taking in. Even those whose main goal is muscle gain can end up with a well-formed spare tire if they become over-reliant on calorie-rich bars and snacks.
3. Consider Goals
Sure, there are a handful of nutrition basics that apply to everyone, but your body and your goals determine what types of products you should be looking for to stay on track. Those looking to get lean may want to stick to lighter-calorie and high-protein or low-sugar fare, while those looking to gain muscle can probably take down a mountain of high-protein products with somewhat less regard to sugar or fat content. Endurance or performance trainers, such as distance runners or CrossFitters, can benefit from higher-carbohydrate sources for quickly digested readily available energy. In short, knowing what you’re going to need the product for (preworkout meal, snack, lunch on the run, etc.) will help you find the right product.
4. Consider Timing
The 400-calorie gut bomb of a bar that you’re taking down like a wood chipper at 3 p.m. is probably not going to work as well as it would if you ate it postworkout when your body is in need of an influx of nutrients. This is why you need to consider the time frame in which you’ll be eating the bars and RTDs.
Meal replacements make for a good choice if you’ve missed, well, a meal, but they can be damaging to your waistline if eaten before idle time. Bars and drinks that are very high in protein are best postworkout, when you need a flood of amino acids to repair damaged muscles. Bars that are slightly lower in protein that contain a moderate amount of healthy carbs are a good preworkout choice because they provide energy, a jump-start on recovery and a buffer to excessive muscle breakdown. If body composition is a concern, high-carb bars and drinks should be kept to your postworkout plan, but if pure performance is your goal, then these make a great choice for preworkout eats.
5. Read Your Labels
Keeping the above macro cheat sheet (see No. 1) in mind, you should now be able to decipher the most important information on the labels of these products. Not everything revolves around the almighty calorie, so knowing how much protein, carbohydrates and fat each product contains should help you determine what you should buy and when. Also, take a moment to read the fine print, which will reveal auxiliary ingredients such as vitamins, supplements or additives that you may or may not need or want in your diet.
More on what to look for — and look out for — in your fave bars and RTDs.
Fiber. Yes, it maintains intestinal health, but fiber’s main benefit is that it slows down the digestion process. That’s generally why we recommend eating higher-fiber carbs … unless you’re in need of quick energy, when a product higher in fiber is probably less than ideal. Eat high-fiber products (up to 5 grams) early in the day or before a long workout for sustained energy and lower-fiber products (a gram or less) in the middle of extra-long sweat sessions when you need an easy-to-digest burst of fuel.
Sugar alcohols. These tasty tricks are the secret behind many a low-sugar/low-carb product. Derived from regular old sucrose, sugar alcohols are not readily absorbed by the body, meaning that you don’t have to count them toward your day’s carbohydrate count. That’s the good news. The bad news is that sugar alcohols can cause stomach upset in some people. If you have a sensitive stomach, look for lower levels in your bar or drink.
Protein type. There are various types of protein powder, each with a different rate of absorption. Whey is the most universally effective protein because the body breaks it down easily, giving your muscles the (re)building blocks they need in a hurry. Casein is also high on the list of popular proteins for RTDs because it offers a slower rate of digestion, giving you a time-release benefit that whey doesn’t offer. Others, such as soy and egg albumin, are slightly less common and are generally added to products that already include whey or casein.
Whey is ideal anytime, but a combination of proteins is best taken postworkout. Drinks and bars that use casein as the main protein source are also great between meals or late at night when a slow trickle of aminos can minimize hunger and preserve muscle.
Sugar and fat. No, this doesn’t seem like a “lurker,” but neglecting these two ingredients can completely sabotage your goals. These two ingredients make bars taste amazing. Many a “health” product has gained popularity on taste alone, so it’s up to you to determine whether the components of that fabulous flavor fit your diet.
Observe and Consume
As Brooks observed in The Shawshank Redemption, “The world went and got itself in a big damn hurry.” As a result, even the nutrition conscious sometimes pay for the convenience of fuel on the go. But as you can see, getting your sports nutrition on is not as simple as walking into your local Vitamin Shoppe and grabbing the first thing you find. Just as you had to learn which lifts and rep ranges helped you to maximize your results, you should make a concerted effort to learn which on-the-go nutritional choices make the most sense for your goals.
By now, you understand that choosing a bar has less to do with the flavor and more to do with a whole slew of variables, from the time of day when you’ll be consuming it to what you’re eating for your other meals. This chart offers an at-a-glance peek at a slew of popular brands to help you make that choice.