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Energy Bars Information - Who Needs Them?

Energy bars, sports bars, protein bars - they're generally promoted as healthy snacks that can also boost sports performance. But are they really necessary - and would an apple or a tub of yoghurt do the job just as well or better?

What's the difference between an energy bar, a sports bar and a protein bar?

Sometimes the terms are used interchangeably but there are some differences:

  • Protein bars marketed for building muscle. These are generally high in protein and lower in carbohydrate. They are formulated to appeal to athletes or anyone who's using strength training to build muscle and add bulk. Used as a snack after strength training, for instance, they claim to help build and repair muscle - but you could get a similar benefit from a tub of yoghurt or a smoothie.
  • Protein bars for weight loss. Some protein bars are promoted either as a healthy snack or a meal replacement to target people trying to lose weight. But as well as protein they often contain sugar alcohols, a type of nutritive sweetener, which is only partially digested and absorbed by the body. Overconsumption of these sugar alcohols can cause wind and diarrhoea. Just as protein bars aren't superior to real food for building muscle, they don't have any special power to melt fat either. If you're feeling hungry after doing exercise, or between meals, a reduced-fat yoghurt or a piece of fruit could do a better job as a healthy snack, according to accredited sports dietitian and exercise physiologist Caitlin Reid.
  • Energy or sports bars. These tend to be high in kilojoules (energy) as they are high in carbohydrates and moderate in protein. They're designed for athletes or people doing endurance training or events and who need to top up on fuel. Their high-carbohydrate content provides fuel for muscles, the protein helps with muscle repair, and their low-fat/low-fibre formulation makes them easy to digest and to tame hunger pangs on a long run or bike ride. They're also used as a post-exercise recovery food, but individual needs vary. Talk to an accredited practising sports dietitian to find out more.

Do I need a sports or energy bar?

Unless you're doing endurance exercise, there's no need for these products at all, Reid explains. Yet because of the way they're marketed, these products are often seen as a healthy snack or a way to give you an edge at the gym - but they may just be adding extra kilojoules, especially if you're doing a short workout.

Instead, choose a healthier snack such as a small handful of nuts with a piece of fruit, a glass of low-fat milk or a tub of low-fat yoghurt with some wholegrain cereal, or a tuna and salad sandwich on wholegrain bread.

These healthy snacks are based on lean protein (lean meat, poultry, fish, low fat dairy products, legumes or nuts) and quality carbohydrates (whole grains, vegetables and fruit). Reid says this is a good foundation of any eating plan for athletes and others who do a lot of exercise of higher intensity and for longer periods of time, to ensure they have enough fuel.

What's the difference between a sports/energy bar and a sports drink?

Compared to a sports drink, a sports bar is a more concentrated form of carbohydrate and is a source of protein to help athletes top up during endurance events or recover in between events.

For more information on exercise nutrition and hydration, see Food for exercise.

Further information

Sports Dietitians Australia

Australian Institute of Sport


Australian Institute of Sport. Sports bars. [online] Bruce, ACT: Australian Sports Commission. [last updated January 2007, accessed 26 Aug 2010] Available from:

Personal communication, Caitlin Reid, Accredited Practising Dietitian and Accredited Exercise Physiologist, Aug 2010.

Sports Dietitians Australia (SDA). Dairy and sports performance. [online] South Melbourne, VIC: SDA. Feb 2011 [accessed 14 Jun 2011] Available from:

Sports Dietitians Australia (SDA).Eating and drinking during and after sport. [online] South Melbourne, VIC: SDA. Aug 2010 [accessed 26 Aug 2010] Available from: and drinking during and after sport Aug 10.pdf (PDF, 328Kb)

This information has been developed and reviewed for Bupa by health professionals. To the best of their knowledge it is current and based on reputable sources of medical research. It should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.

Bupa Australia Pty Ltd makes no warranties or representations regarding the completeness or accuracy of the information. Bupa Australia is not liable for any loss or damage you suffer arising out of the use of or reliance on the information. Except that which cannot be excluded by law. We recommend that you consult your doctor or other qualified health professional if you have questions or concerns about your health. For more details on how we produce our health content, visit the About our health information page.

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