How to count carbs

It all started in the 60’s with Space Food Sticks. Those Tootsie Roll like “meal in a bar” innovations, developed by scientists, that astronauts ate. Since then we have been through countless evolutions of the same basic idea; a quick, balanced, healthy meal on the go. Today there is everything from your basic repackaged, sugar-laden breakfast cereal in bar form, to “low-fat” weight loss bars, to healthy chocolate something crunch bars. And for a “quick pick me up,” or “get me through,” there are more than a few that will do the job.

I read the label
So, just what is it that you look at when you are stocking up on your favorite bar for this weekend’s outdoor adventure? Calories? Fat content? Protein? Type of chocolate used?

Most of us want something that is tasty AND healthy. And while we have been sold the bill of goods that calories out must balance with calories in, metabolic arithmetic is not one of linear sequencing. The kind of calorie makes a big difference. And if you are thinking “low fat” is what you should want, then you would be wrong.

Know what the numbers mean
Jade and Keoni Teda in their easy to read, The New ME (Metabolic Effect) Diet help us to understand why some of us hamster ourselves on treadmills for hours a week and cultivate “low fat” diets, and yet the waistline resolutely ignores our efforts. The problem is not simply calories; it is what kind of calories. In essence, it is the carbohydrates, and most especially the refined ones that lead to all kinds of metabolic mischief.

In their book is a handy guide to reading the labels on energy bars. They read it not from the perspective of calories or fat, but rather from the point of view of glycemic load. The thought being that if you can moderate the insulin response, then you have a tendency to burn more fat and store less of it.

A smattering of simple math
You want energy bars that:
1) don’t have a bunch of hard to pronounce chemicals in them
2) a total true carbohydrate load of 10-15g and ideally less

To calculate the true carbohydrate load:
Take the total number of carbohydrates in grams
Subtract out the grams of fiber
Subtract out the grams of protein

Here is an energy bar that has a high vegetable and fruit content. (It’s one of those specialty bars)
It contains 28g of carbohydrate
From this we subtract the 3g of fiber and 12g of protein, which gives a total carbohydrate load of 13 grams.
By the way, the 12g of protein here is equivalent to two Trader Joe’s hotdogs.


Now lets look at the label of a peanut butter protein bar.
It contains 20g of carbohydrate, but when we subtract out the protein and fiber, it weighs in at just 4 grams of carbohydrate. That and all the fat in it will barely cause an insulin response.




Here is the label of “Healthy” brand found in your local grocery store.
Total carbs clock in at 25g. Once the modest amount of fiber and protein is subtracted out, this unit has 21g of insulin spiking carbohydrate.




Just for fun, let’s turn to the more sugary side of the spectrum; pop tarts.
This bad-boy has 32.2g of carbohydrate, and once the barely present fiber- .75g, and small amount of protein- 2.7g is subtracted out, we see a metabolic load of 28.75g of refined carbohydrate.




What about fat?
It goes without saying that trans-fats and hydrogenated oils should be avoided. Omega-3 fats, mono-unsaturated fats and flaxseed oil are worth seeking out. Ideally, your energy bar should contain 15g or less of fat.

Low fat usually means high carb. It is not necessarily the fat in our diet that makes us fat. Those carbohydrates are responsible for spikes in your insulin level, and insulin causes the body to store fat.

Read the label, do the math. If you have a tasty energy bar that has a true carbohydrate load of 10g or less, share it in the comments section!


  1. Yes, it is pretty cool that some of these bars are negative glycemic load. If you need a bite on the run, or a “snack” these are the way to go.

    Thanks for the suggestions and metabolic analysis on these. The “oh yeah” sounds great.

  2. One more: The “Oh Yeah!” bar by Integrated Sports Science out of Charlotte NC. It has 16 g carbs, but taking away the 3 g of fiber and the 15 g of protein, this is another bar that yields a negative glycemic load. The peanut butter & caramel bar was quite satisfying while out biking…

  3. Not sure how to judge this one: It’s called the “Pure Protein” bar (chocolate peanut butter) that I think I found at Dierbergs or a local bike shop. It’s made by “Worldwide Sports Nutritional Supplemenets, Inc.” out of Bayport, NY. Anyway, it has 16g carbs, but “taking away” the 1 g of fiber and the 20 g of protein, that leaves one in the negative range of carbo loading=!?!?!? Only 6 g of fat. And this one is tasty too!

  4. The CLIF “Builder’s” Natural Protein Bar (peanut butter version) has 30 grams of carbs, but subtracting out the 4 g of fiber and the 20 g of protein, one is left with 6 grams of carbs. This bar also has ‘only’ 8 grams of fat. While there are no trans fats, and the saturated fat is 5 g, there is flaxseed and sunflower oils in there. And….it tastes pretty good!