Breakfast is considered ‘the most important meal of the day’ and indeed it should be since it is like breaking the fast of the prior night.
However, research on this is kind of conflicting. (Read Breakfast & BMI)
Nevertheless, in layman terms, a delicious breakfast is definitely a great start to the day.
However most of us are on the run, so we tend to skip meals and that is mostly breakfast.
And the food industry seizes this as an opportunity to start a new trend of on the go breakfast in the form of ready to eat cereals, breakfast bars, and shakes.
Breakfast bars being the most convenient ones are sometimes consumed as a mid-morning snack or even as a meal replacement.
But do these breakfast bars have a beneficial effect on our health and body composition?
What are Breakfast Bars Made of?
Breakfast typically consists of a source of healthy carbs like cereals, protein like sprouts or eggs and a beverage which would be milk, tea or coffee. Breakfast bars seem to imitate the components of a healthy breakfast.
This is what a breakfast bar should typically contain:
- Dry Fruits
- Good source of protein like almond or peanut butter
- A dash of fat
- Little natural sweetener
But this is what they tend to consist of:
This makes the so-called ‘healthy breakfast bar’ seem more like a processed food item.
So when you say a breakfast bar is healthy you should either evaluate its ingredients first or change your definition of healthy.
Science About the Health Quotient of Breakfast Bars
Having commented on the ingredient list of breakfast bars, it would be necessary to mention that this is not applicable to all breakfast bars; some of them are pretty good you just need to know which one.
Research studies haven’t typically assessed the efficacy of breakfast bars in causing weight loss but their effect on other aspects of health has been studied and documented.
1.Breakfast bars and appetite control
Different dietary strategies have been devised to control appetite and the frequency of eating and snacking influences appetite.
In this study the effect of a conventional snack (cereal bar) and non-conventional snack (almonds) on hunger was studied.
Higher frequency of eating was observed in almond snack group than cereal bar and control group.
Neither of the interventions led to weight gain which suggests that cereal bar consumption is more satiating and effective in controlling appetite.
Rothacker et al have found that thickness of meal replacement drinks influences satiety and controls appetite for 3 hours.
They conducted a similar study on meal replacement bars. The bar used in the study contained 250 calories (about 30 more than most liquid diet shakes), 4 g dietary fiber, 14 g protein, and 8 g fat.
Individuals were asked to consume the bar after an overnight fast and it was observed that meal replacement bars contained only 30 calories more than liquid but they helped in controlling appetite for 5 hours.
Some researchers do not agree with the idea that fiber dense foods promote satiety. In this study bars made from oat bran, barley bran or having low fiber content were assessed.
They were consumed at dinner and subsequent morning for breakfast. Oddly no change in appetite or energy intake at lunch was observed.
Addition of fibers like guar gum, alginate and beta glucan (fiber found in oats) also don’t seem to affect the effect of breakfast bars on satiety.
What does this mean?
Research shows that breakfast bars and similar items are effective in controlling appetite up to 5 hours. However some scientists do oppose the idea that rich fiber content of snack bars can help in promoting satiety.
2.Breakfast bars as a meal replacement
A clinical trial was conducted where for 3 months one group received conventional food and the other had 2 meals and 2 snacks replaced with nutrition bars and shakes.
The group consuming meal replacement options lost 7.8% of their initial weight while conventional group lost only 1.5%.
The study was extended for four years and results were consistent.
A study was conducted wherein the effect of traditional food and meal replacement food items was studied.
Daily energy intake was restricted to 5400kJ per day. The meal replacement groups received 1-2 meal replacement drinks or bars per day.
The bars provided 220 Calories with 8 grams of protein, 33 to 36 grams of carbohydrate, 2 grams of dietary fiber, and 5 grams of fat.
They also contained 25-35% of daily nutrient intake.
Weight loss was almost similar in both groups (6kg in traditional food group and 5kg in meal replacement group) but the diet of traditional food group was lacking in essential vitamins and minerals.
Researchers concluded that there is a need to include fortified foods in diets to meet the daily nutrient requirement.
Another study also reported that addition of calcium-fortified cereal bars to regular diet increased dietary calcium intake without causing weight gain.
Trier et al reported that ingestion of a high protein (280kcal) or high carbohydrate (260kcal) nutrition bar is an effective way to include nutrients in diet and energy intake are adequately compensated which means consumption of nutrition bars doesn’t lead to weight gain.
In a research study, 10 lean men were asked to have a whey protein and polydextrose snack bar or an isocaloric snack bar as mid day snack.
It was found that the days on which subjects ate the protein bar they had lower energy intake and this bar reduced the level of hunger hormone-ghrelin and increased the levels of satiety hormones like PYY and GLP-1.
What does this mean?
Using snack/breakfast bars as meal replacement is proven to cause significant weight loss in the long term especially when the calorie content of the bar is lower than your regular energy intake. They also serve as a great way to include essential nutrients in your diet.
3.Breakfast bars and their effect on metabolic parameters
A cereal bar rich in soy protein and isoflavones (plant derived estrogen and antioxidants) has been developed to treat dyslipidemia.
Dyslipidemia is a condition characterized by abnormal blood lipid (fat) and cholesterol levels.
A soy snack bar with 39.88 g dietary fiber, 34.25 g protein, 100.39 mg isoflavones and 245.47 kcal/100 g was produced.
45 days clinical trial showed that consumption of this snack had a beneficial effect on cholesterol levels.
Davidi and fellow researchers studied the effect of addition of fruit and nut snack bars to diet on weight and cardiac risk profile.
Overweight individuals were recruited for this study and assigned to have a regular diet or a regular diet with two fruit and snack bars (340Calorie) for 8 weeks.
No change in weight, waist circumference, blood pressure or other metabolic parameters was seen but the researchers that inclusion of such calorie dense snack does not cause weight gain and its impact on satiety can help in stabilizing weight.
Rice bran oil is apparently beneficial for maintaining healthy blood lipid levels since it reduces cholesterol absorption.
The compound y-oryzanol is said to be responsible for the cholesterol-lowering effect of rice bran oil.
Research shows that snacking on a rice bran cereal bar in combination with low-calorie diet helps lower body weight, fat and improve blood lipid levels.
Snack bars rich in cocoa antioxidants also improves blood lipids and cholesterol levels.
Some researchers have studied whether the macronutrient composition of snacks can affect metabolic parameters and satiety.
The comparison was between high fat, high sugar snack bar and high protein, high fiber snack bar. Snack bars were consumed either at mid morning or mid-afternoon.
Consumption of high protein bars had a beneficial effect on blood glucose and insulin levels and reduced energy intake at lunch by 5%.
Another important factor to be kept in mind is the effect of snack bars on blood glucose. This is measured by the term glycemic index which is a number that describes the impact the food item has on our blood sugar.
High rise in blood sugar is followed by raise blood insulin levels which leads to a sudden drop of blood sugar and that serves as a signal for hunger.
Following three nutrition bars have been assessed for their effect on blood sugar:
- SmartZone nutrition bar (The Hershey Co, Hershey, PA)
- ZonePerfect nutrition bar (Abbott Laboratories, Abbott Park, IL)
- SlimFast meal bar (SlimFast Foods Co, West Palm Beach, FL)
As per research SmartZone and ZonePerfect bars provide a low glycemic response. But both of these are features of the Zone diet.
Low glycemic index snack bar consumption is proven to increase fat burning during moderate intensity exercise.
Lower the carbohydrate content of the snack bar better is the regulation of blood sugar.
What does this mean?
Certain snack bars are designed to lower blood cholesterol and lipids. Lower the carbohydrate content of the bar lesser is the chances of having disturbed blood sugar levels.
How to Choose Healthy Breakfast Bar?
Most research demonstrates that breakfast bars are healthy alternatives and does not lead to weight gain.
But if you have a look at the nutrition labels of these bars you will realize that one serving has a high energy content most of which comes from fats and over two teaspoons of sugar.
Now that is a perfect recipe for weight gain. So here are a few things to watch out for when selecting a breakfast bar:
- Energy content: This is the number of calories you will be obtaining from the breakfast bar. Depending on your daily calorie requirement or how physically active you are, you can decide the right number of calories for you. A safe number would be below 200 calories from breakfast bar if you are trying to lose weight.
- Fat content : Your snack bar will contain both healthy and unhealthy fat. Do not go for the bras that are rich in saturated or trans fat.
- Sugar or refined carbohydrate content: Added sugar is included in a number of forms: Molasses syrup, high fructose corn syrup, maltose etc. Watch out for the sugar content and calories from sugar. The American Heart Association recommends following sugar intake : Men: 150 calories per day or 37.5 grams and Women: 100 calories per day or 25 grams
So if the bar shows sugar content of 10 grams then that would contribute to 1/3 or ½ of your daily intake.
- Fiber content: More than 3 grams of fiber is considered as high fiber food but ideally women need 25 grams of fiber while men need 38g.
- Protein content: Protein is an expensive macronutrient in terms of calorie content since a lot of energy is required to digest and store it. Also it is very satiating. So higher the protein content more helpful the bar should be for weight loss as far as other factors are kept under check. 15 grams or more means high protein content.
- Sodium content: In case you are suffering from a disease that requires monitoring sodium intake anything less than 200mg should be fine.
How many breakfast bars to eat in a day?
Assuming that calories from sugar content and total calorie content is low, one breakfast bar a day in place of breakfast or as a snack should be a great start.
Seek a dietician’s advice whether such nutrition bars can be used to replace more than one meal a day.
Certain commercial weight loss diets like Medifast diet, Zone diet, Atkins diet do offer such options of nutrition bars.
Breakfast or nutrition bars are handy when it comes to a snack or as an energy booster.
Breakfast bars are indeed healthy alternatives for meals or snacks as long as their ingredient list does not contain excess processed items and added sugars.
Also, their energy content should be low.
Most nutrition bars do not meet this criterion and are equivalent to sugar laced chocolate snacks.
So you need to clearly monitor the ingredient list before deciding if the breakfast bar is a healthy one.
What you can also do is follow a few recipes of homemade breakfast bars to meet your energy and dietary requirements.