We met superstar endurance athlete, 11-time Ironman finisher, and sports dietitian Marni Sumbal MS, RD, CSSD, LD/N through an event with Clif Bar, so we had tons of questions for her about just that: bars. Sports nutrition can be confusing, so we wanted some clarification.
We throw protein and nutrition bars into our gym bags, but when is the right time to choose a bar over a piece of fruit, cup of yogurt, or serving of meat? What time should we be eating these bars? Who are they made for? (And yes, we asked her all these things, and she wasn't fazed by our barrage of questions.) Here's the scoop!
When should you eat protein/sport bars?
- In a pinch. "For sport bars, I see these as emergency or planned situations — either you need something in the belly to control blood sugar or to honor biological hunger when you are delayed in the car, at the office, or in a meeting or traveling," said Marni. "I would suggest use bars sparingly but always with a purpose — bars should never replace real food when you have the opportunity to eat real food."
- During a long bike ride or workout. On the road for a while? Don't let yourself go hungry — bars are easy to eat when you're constantly moving and don't have time to stop.
- When your appetite is suppressed. Have you ever done some intense cardio and then just couldn't fathom stomaching a meal? This is the perfect time to grab a bar. "Perhaps you can't stomach a full meal; you can nibble on a bar instead after a hard workout."
When should you NOT eat bars?
"I encourage athletes to use real food for protein, as it is the best way to obtain the nutrients and amino acids found in protein," said Marni. "I encourage 25 to 30 grams of protein per meal. The protein can be from meat (animal protein) or plant [protein], or a combination of both." She also noted to not stress about ensuring that each protein you consume is a "complete protein," suggesting that you "eat a variety of protein throughout the day, and the amino acids will add up as the day progresses."
How do you choose the right bar?
Marni suggests bars that actually have a decent amount of carbohydrates to ensure you're maintaining energy levels, but with a balance of all three macros. "Choose a bar with carbohydrates and a little protein and fat — most bars are nut and fruit based which provides a nice combination of nutrients."
When should you fuel up?
Whether it's a bar or another "energy-dense" food as Marni would put it, you should be eating 20 to 45 minutes before your workout (if your exercise time is under 90 minutes). Post workout, she suggests refueling with a recovery snack within 45 minutes of your workout. This is where bars come in — if you can't get home to grab or make food in that window, bars come in handy.