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At best, they can help when you want to manage hunger within a carefully controlled serving size. The thought, energy, and time required to prepare three balanced meals throughout the course of an already busy day is legitimately daunting. Compared with just grabbing a pre-wrapped bar on your way out the door, it's almost no contest.
But how do nutrition bars aimed at women actually affect physical health? What about mental health? Does a nutrition bar, let alone any food, need to be gender-specific at all?
Luna was the first nutrition bar designed specifically for women. Created by Clif Bar & Company in 1999, Luna was an attempt to introduce an alternative for women who wanted the portion-controlled packaging of energy bars without the carbohydrates meant to fuel regular exercise.
"Women are not always in that scenario," says Tara Dellolacono Thies, Clif's in-house dietician. Whereas Clif serves both male and female endurance athletes, "Luna Bar is for women who are simply focused on, 'I need to get to work, I need to work out a couple times a week.' They don't necessarily have a training regimen—they're everyday women who are just trying to enjoy a healthier lifestyle."
According to Luna's website, "Eating well doesn't have to be complicated." Its prime demographic appears to be working moms in particular, interspersing office lingo like "expense reports" and "mid-morning meeting" with phrases like "chauffeuring your kids to school," pivoting to real talk that you, Luna woman, "need a break."
"The thinkThin woman has a balanced approach to health and eating," says the brand's marketing director Cherry Joh. "She believes that food that is good for you should also taste good. She's smart about her food choices."
"Good" and "smart" are the operative words here. Eating poorly is equated with making bad, uninformed decisions, and these companies are keen to refute the myth that healthy food means boring or unappetizing.
"Good nutrition can taste yummy."
"My bars are promoted as 'nutritional goodness,'" says Staness Jonekos, co-author of Eat Like a Woman, and the brains behind the correlating three-step nutrition program and line of ELAW bars. "Good nutrition can taste yummy."
This seems like a sound philosophy for anyone, men included. But Jonekos maintains that the biological distinctions between women and men demand that women nourish themselves uniquely.
"Women gain and lose weight very differently from men," she explains, adding that women require different combinations of protein and carbs than men do. ELAW bars, says Jonekos, "have the perfect ratio to help boost metabolism."
To satisfy what Dellolacono Thies refers to as "women's specific micro-nutrition needs," Luna adds precise amounts of iron, calcium, Vitamin D, and folic acid—vitamins and minerals singled out as commonly missing from a woman's diet—to its sub-200-calorie, low-glycemic bars. By the end of the year, Luna will also be gluten-free, catching up with its competitors.
Special formulations seek to fulfill the perceived need for gender-specific nutrition, but these brands also operate in pursuit of what they believe women want: dessert minus the hypothetical pounds.
thinkThin specializes in low-sugar content. Like Luna, thinkThin names its bars after sweet treats (high-protein, high-fiber rectangles of "whey protein isolate" and "maltitol" are labeled "Chocolate Covered Strawberries"), but manages to boast 0 to 5 grams of sugar per bar. The rationale here is clear: The human body converts unburned sugar into fat, so less sugar means less potential fat.
"We don't espouse dieting," Joh says. Yet the company's name is no mistake—thinkThin sounds an awful lot like a weight loss instruction.
While the makers of nutrition bars stand by the health value of their products, others remain more skeptical.
"I think of them as vitamin-supplemented cookies," says New York University nutrition and food studies professor Marion Nestle. "People who eat a variety of relatively unprocessed foods, including fruits and vegetables, and who are taking in enough calories, really don't need to worry about single nutrients. The foods take care of them."
"I know that there's magical thinking involved in this."
This is where that "busy woman" emphasis comes into sharp focus: Nutrition bars are timesavers for when whole foods aren't an option. And if these bars can fill in the nutritive gaps, albeit with additives and hard-to-pronounce ingredients, what's the harm?
"I know that there's magical thinking involved in this," says osteopath Cheri Quincy, a physician who specializes in women's health. "'Take this pill and that'll fix it.' We assume that if we put it in our mouths, it'll do what we want it to do."
Quincy agrees that most people—not just women—are deficient in Vitamin D, and that women can be deficient in folic acid. But the jury is still out on calcium, she says, citing several studies from the past year that found taking calcium supplements is not an entirely airtight solution to preventing osteoporosis, and may even be cause for serious safety concerns. Regardless, the amount of vitamins and minerals offered in these bars, she cautions, is "not enough quantity to actually do anything."
The branding around women's nutrition bars is anything but subtle. Luna's website is replete with conventional lady-speak buzzwords like "decadent," "tempting," "indulge," and "crave," and even invokes romance with headers like, "Love at First Bite." ELAW's book trailer asks, "Have YOU been eating like a MAN and gaining weight like a woman?" Its site states, "It's no surprise that men get skinny, and women get mad!"
thinkThin promises thinness in the name of its product, but the copy throughout its site flips the script, insisting that thinness isn't what really matters. Its mission statement espouses female empowerment via inspirational quotes displayed in cursive font: "A scale can't measure your strength, courage, kindness, or intelligence," "Beauty comes from a life well lived," "There's nothing sexier than a hearty helping of confidence."
The idea of "guilt-free" eating is also prevalent in the literature for all three companies. "We say no to guilt, deprivation, and dieting," reads Luna's site. "Creamy deliciousness with none of the guilt!" says ELAW's. "At thinkThin, we believe that women should never have to feel guilty about what they eat."
"You can't begin to have a conversation about women's nutrition until you address the notion of guilt," says thinkThin's Joh. "There are multi-billion-dollar diet and fashion industries out there promoting guilt and deprivation as a way of life to women."
"A lot of women have shame around overeating," agrees psychotherapist Erika Hellwig, who operates a private practice out of New York. "They've been taught if you overeat and you gain weight, that's a really shameful thing. They want to eat, but feel shame or are shamed externally."
The marketing language behind these nutrition bars is part of the problem.
But Hellwig maintains that the marketing language behind these nutrition bars is part of the problem, legitimizing the guilt and "reinforcing that you should feel ashamed if you want to eat something."
It's not a surprise that these strategies aren't employed in the marketing of non-gender-specific bars, or bars largely consumed by men. Clif Bar's website, for instance, focuses not on avoiding mistakes and temptation, but on actually remembering to eat. It's hard not to note that this hits on a common stereotype: women think, men do.
Are women and men really as different as we're led to believe? The short answer, on a caloric level, is yes. "Men have an unfair metabolism that runs a little hotter than women's," says Quincy. "So they get a few more extra calories that they can tolerate, and they're less likely to deposit fat, but all that has to do with how old you are."
In this way, those women-specific carb-protein ratios that ELAW advertises more or less make sense. But what about gender-based differences beyond weight worries? ELAW's bars are designed to "stimulate neurotransmitter health—your emotional chemistry." Says Jonekos: "Women make up to 30% less serotonin than men, making them two to three times more likely to suffer from depression. Feeling depressed increases the incidence of weight gain, because you start grabbing comfort foods like cookies or French fries to feel better."
But the health care professionals we spoke to disagree that women have a greater tendency to let emotion dictate their eating habits.
"I think most people, most of the time, operate from gut feelings," says Quincy. "If you're a person who's afraid a lot, you might eat differently than someone who is more in a state of happiness. But I don't know that that's necessarily gender-specific." Adds Hellwig, "Men and women both use food and drink to deal with emotions."
"Men and women both use food and drink to deal with emotions."
Still, Hellwig agrees that the guilt surrounding overeating is more often an issue for women than it is for men. "Culturally, men are not shamed about overeating. It's more okay for a man to be heavier than it is for a woman."
Several years ago, there was an internet-perpetuated rumor that Luna contained estrogen. It was a baseless claim, but Dellolacono Thies does caution that men do not necessarily need extra iron and folic acid in their diets, and that they may not find the bars' size satiating. However, men certainly aren't discouraged from hopping aboard the Luna train. thinkThin and Eat Like a Woman proudly proclaim that their bars are man-friendly, too.
Still, these companies maintain that women, unlike men, should stick to nutrition meant for them. As the ELAW book trailer puts it, "Can you eat like a man? Sure, but if you want to honor your body, eat like a woman."
It's tricky because, in theory, nutrition bars offer the type of quick-fix food many women are looking for. I personally take comfort in the fact that there's food designed for my body, whether it's fact-based or pure placebo. But I also feel overwhelmed by the bizarre ingredients listed in some of these bars, many of which I'm not sure I need. Plus, the blatant normalization of gender stereotypes in their marketing promotions can be troubling.
Here I am, a woman put off by food for women.
A good friend of mine recently visited and yelped in glee when he saw an array of thinkThin bars splayed on my ottoman. "I love thinkThin!" he exclaimed. I asked if he's bothered at all that the bars are largely targeted at women.
He took a minute to collect his thoughts. "I'm kind of shocked, to be honest. This is very surprising to me."
I asked him if that changed his mind.
"No!" he said. "I love them!"