Bodybuilders and most athletes are universally looking for faster gains in lean muscle and faster recovery from all forms of workouts. Convenience is a big factor - witness the enormous use and growth of super high-protein bars in the last 5-6 years!
It's no secret that the prime protein issue in bodybuilding those last 5-6 years, albeit somewhat illusory, has been the marketing debate over the relative and absolute nitrogen retention and absorption of whey versus casein proteins. This is also known in our vernacular as the 'fast versus slow' protein debate or the so-called 'Designer (whey) versus Met-Rx (casein)' debate. Let us add nausea to the protein -- as an extra ingredient.
The bigger and much more important issue is the ratio, amount and type of carbohydrates used in concert with ANY great protein. The fact is every serious bodybuilder and lifter has been sidetracked and horribly misguided on the 'zero or low carbohydrate' kick. Not only is this a whole lot of nonsensical marketing schlock anyway, but also going low carbohydrate is absolutely disastrous for athletes who want to build muscle faster, especially natural bodybuilders not stocked up on Mexican steroids.
This issue has been erroneously propagated in the marketing of protein bars as any high protein bar must be nutritionally germane to bodybuilding, which is supplying nutrition to build muscle and that means carbohydrates my friends.
Basically there are two different types of protein bars available - high-protein, low carbohydrate bars (that may be high in glycerin) and/or bars high in protein and moderate in full-range, normal carbohydrate bars.
[Jeff Everson note: There is also a third type, and that is a protein bar for the muscle-less aerobic set who desires super high carbohydrates and, for some reason, hardly any protein at all.]
It's The Carbohydrates Stupid!
Let us leave glycerin issue out of the equation for now. Let it only be said that glycerin while having some special properties, is certainly not special when it comes to calories. For individuals who are on a high protein/low carb diet, the first category-this high protein/low carbohydrate nutrient profile may indeed help you to burn fat faster.
But for serious athletes who train consistently at high intensity levels (bodybuilders), food bars, with high protein and moderate-to-high carbohydrate and some fat, definitely offer better gains and faster recovery. There is absolutely no question about this.
Carbohydrates spare protein and are your body's principal source of fuel. They provide the energy necessary for intense workouts more efficiently than any other energy source. Protein needs carbohydrates to work.
In fact, starving your body of carbohydrates during and after periods of intense exercise will likely cause your body to use protein as an energy source. In severe cases of low carbohydrate for prolonged periods, this may even result in the breakdown of hard-earned muscle proteins to be used as fuel during workouts or to replenish muscle glycogen after training.
In the days when Chris Dickerson was Mr. Olympia and Al Beckles was starting to reach his peak, many bodybuilders would do the 'no carbohydrate thing' for some time. Cory Everson, on the other hand, never dropped her carbohydrates - ever.
In either case, protein is a relatively expensive (and inefficient) energy source when compared to carbohydrates. As much as some frown on sugars and starches, these carbohydrates are your body's MOST important fuel source. Your body breaks them down into the simple sugar glucose. Glucose is either directly consumed by your cells for energy, or it's stored as glycogen in the muscle or liver for later use when your energy demand requires it. Those are the simple, accurate facts.
When glucose is in short supply, your body will begin to utilize fat and protein (even muscle protein) for energy to preserve glucose levels. This complex energy system has been referred to by some as the "Glucose Economy." If you do not obtain enough glucose from the food you eat, your body has the ability to convert protein or fat into glucose. As you burn calories (energy) through exercise, or remain in a carbohydrate-fasted state (as on low carb diets), your body scrambles to make glucose in an effort to maintain its glucose economy.
It is your glucose economy that determines how fast your body burns fat, how well it performs physically, and how fast you recover after training. Yes, low carbohydrate diets may be an effective way to manipulate your body's glucose economy to burn fat faster. Since the body is in a carb-depleted state, it is forced to convert fat into glucose to meet its energy demands. But you simply can not do this for any extended period or you will not accrue muscle.
Smart bodybuilders may carbohydrate-deplete gradually ONLY for a few weeks (maybe 3-10 weeks) as they get shredded for competition. During these critical competition, low carbohydrate trials, high protein bars (commercial examples: The Pure Protein bar and The Promax Lean Protein bar), are convenient and effective means to increase protein intake and minimize carbohydrates.
Beware, though, bodybuilders and other athletes may be at risk of catabolizing muscle protein to meet the body's demand for glucose and may actually sacrifice gains in lean muscle if they follow low carb diets (or just use low carbohydrate bars), for extended periods of time. I say again strongly, such use must be occasional, not for extended periods of time.
Packing On Muscle: Carbs & Fats Required!
Most of the training year, bodybuilders and strength athletes are training to pack on muscle. During this type of training, low carb diets categorically will NOT be as effective at building muscle as a diet that is higher in carbohydrates.
Moderate-to-high carbohydrate diets provide better energy levels, support muscle growth, prevent muscle break down, and promote faster recovery after training, all of which are vital when athletes are training for size and strength.
Research suggests that for these training periods, a protein bar with moderate levels of carbohydrates (perhaps in this case, something like my actual favorite, The Promax bar from the SportPharma company), will prove a much better choice than an ultra low carbohydrate bar. There is another thing to consider: fat intake. That's right -- fat intake. The glucose economy model offers insight into how to manipulate fat intake to maintain a lean muscular look.
When you are restricting the amount of carbs you eat, you need to increase the amount of fat in your diet to help maintain energy levels and to spare protein. When you are eating normal levels of carbohydrates, reduce the amount of calories you eat from fat. Gram for gram, of course, fat provides twice as much energy (calories) as carbohydrates. So small adjustments to your fat intake offset large increase or decreases in carbohydrate levels. You simply have to have some fat to grow muscle so DO NOT BE AFRAID OF SOME FAT!
Back To Glycerin (And The FDA Labeling Requirements)
New labeling laws may also affect how companies market protein bars. Effective January 2002 bar manufacturers must list glycerin as a carbohydrate. Since the body does not metabolize glycerin like simple sugars and starches, most bar manufacturers had not listed it as a carbohydrate in the fact panel.
And, in fact, an equal dose of glycerin, will not raise blood glucose as much as will an equal dose of conventional carbohydrate. Glycerin is therefore a special low glycemic from of carbohydrate, at the least. However, it has approximately the same calories as carbohydrates for the energy balance equation (what the FDA is most concerned with, not performance) and it certainly does not increase post exercise levels of depleted glycogen, where conventional high-glycemic carbohydrates work better!
Honestly, Do You Know What Is Most Important Of All?
If you are at all confused, to select the best nutrition bar for your particular training cycle, look at the sugar levels listed in the nutrition fact panel.
What I mean by this is low sugar bars are ONLY appropriate for short-tem low carbohydrate diets, while BELIEVE IT OR NOT, bars with 15-30 grams of sugar are actually BETTER for putting on size and strength for ALL bodybuilders. That's the undeniable truth!
About The Authors
Robert Thoburn is a biochemist and biophysicist. His particular expertise concerns how meal choices affect the fuel mixture used by the body and how this relates to skeletal muscle development and body fat loss. John Thurman has been a registered dietician for The Blue Cross/Blue Shield Health Company. He also has been a successful competitive bodybuilder.
The specific food bar John mentions as his favorite, The Promax Bar from SportPharma, has been a regular contributor (advertiser) in the pages of Planet Muscle and a long-time sponsor of Planet Muscle Television on The E! Network - (nationwide at 6:30 a.m. E/P time the first and third Saturdays, Feb.-Nov.)
I have noted on numerous occasions, that the SportPharma bars, (in my opinion), are the best tasting bars ever. My favorite has always been the raspberry. Click the link to find out more about the Sportpharma Bars.