Energy bars have their place in workout/health routines. That is, if you’re training for a marathon or something else equally intensive.

We checked with Samantha “Sam” Spain, a registered dietitian at Novant Health Bariatric Solutions in Kernersville, North Carolina, to get the skinny on the best foods to help you power through a workout.

Energy bars and other energy products including chews, gels and sports drinks are marketed to people with an “active lifestyle.” Are they worth the hype?

They can be beneficial to certain populations. Energy gels and chews are a quick way to get energy, calories, carbohydrates and in some cases, electrolytes. They contain things like glucose or fructose and other high glycemic sources of carbohydrates. Those high glycemic foods result in a quick blood glucose response. They’re great for fueling during strenuous exercise.

Samantha "Sam" Spain
Samantha "Sam" Spain

Glucose? People with sedentary lifestyles don’t need any more of that, right?   

Correct. So, those energy bars would be specific to someone exercising for more than an hour at a time and really training for an endurance sport – a 5K, half-marathon or marathon.

Are energy products all the same?

Chews and gels function very similarly. They contain those quick carbs we talked about. Bars are not recommended for during exercise; they’re more appropriate for before or after. They typically contain more fiber and more protein, so they’re not as easy to digest during exercise and can cause GI upset.

Some of these products are pricy. I’ve heard of people substituting something cheaper – grape jelly, a Pop-Tart or Skittles – as an energy boost.

Elite athletes may be successful with substituting those quick carbohydrates. If runners and triathletes want to try it – whether it’s a chew, a gel or a jelly bean – they should try that during training so they know what’s going to work well on race day.

Most people aren’t training for hours. For the average person who exercises for 30 to 45 minutes, how should they fuel a workout?

The average adult is probably working out at a moderate to low intensity, which doesn't require fuel during that activity. For those people, it’s appropriate to consume a meal three to four hours before exercise.

The meal should contain complex carbohydrates such as beans or sweet potatoes, protein and nonstarchy vegetables like salad, greens, peppers, onions, things along those lines.

If you’re doing a low-intensity exercise for 45 minutes to an hour, research shows that having a snack with protein and a carb before that workout can be helpful. That could be as simple as a piece of peanut butter toast.

For people who work out in the mornings, should they do that on an empty stomach?

There is research that supports fasted, or empty-stomach, exercise. And there’s research to support having nutrition, as well. Go with whatever you’re comfortable with.

You’re an avid runner, right? Do you have any advice to share?

I am a runner. My advice is always to take it one step at a time. If we look at Olympic and other elite athletes, you realize they didn’t become that good overnight. They started with 1 mile. And the 1 mile became 2 miles. Allow time – and persistence – to help transform your training. Good, high-quality nutrition plays a part, too.

What are some other energy-boosting foods for those of us who aren’t elite athletes?

I teach my patients about eating things that grow from the earth. Higher-quality foods sustain us longer than quick carbohydrates. Something highly processed, like the Pop-Tarts you mentioned, we burn through so quickly. We end up hungry again soon after and reach for Red Bull or something like that.

Choosing high-quality foods like lean proteins, a variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains can really improve overall energy levels.