Food choice is personal, and the personal is often political. Telling someone how to eat comes across with the same arrogance of someone telling you how to live. For this reason the following article is intended to supplement your current long distance trail diet (vegetarian or meat based), not force you to completely rethink it. The idea is to share food concerns and solutions that other trail hikers have used to help maintain their body while on the trail, in other words, how to eat healthy on the trail. Unlike other guides available on the internet (linked to at the end of this article), this primer specifically focuses on eating healthy food during a long distance hike like the Appalachian Trail.
The goal of this primer and others along the same topic are to raise and consider these issues beforehand. A hiker who fails #1 (calories) will lose weight, those that fail #2 (protein) will be sore most mornings and will not gain as much strength as they might hope, those that fail #3 will not be getting many nutrients important to maintain optimal health, and those that fail #4 (Calcium) will weaken their bones and risk injury. Those that fail 2-3 of the above issues are the ones we all see pulling off the trail before they ever wanted to.
- Many hikers fail to eat enough calories on the trail.
- Many hikers fail to eat enough protein on the trail.
- Most hikers fail to eat enough vegetables on the trail.
- Most hikers fail to get enough calcium on the trail.
The Quick Basics
Your Body Will Burn More Calories than Normal
- Your body will burn more calories than normal.
- You can replace the calories with food, or you can replace the calories with your own body (i.e., eat more or lose weight). Eating more is not as easy as it sounds.
- Your body will build more protein than normal (i.e., repair muscles).
- You can replace the protein with food, or you can replace the protein from your own body (i.e., eat complete proteins or become sore all over as your body uses the muscles/protein in your arms and upper back to repair your torn leg muscles.). A ‘complete protein’ is the important factor here.
- Your body will continue to need fruits for optimum health. Fruit is not difficult to bring on the trail.
- Your body will continue to need non-starchy vegetables (green vegetables) for optimum health. Eating greens on the trail can be accomplished, yet tends to be missing in most peoples trail diets.
- Calcium is often missing in trail diets. (Dietary Adequacy and Changes in the Nutritional Status of Appalachian Trail Through-Hikers; Karen Lutz, 1982) So is Vitamin C.
- Supplements and highly processed foods (e.g., instant foods) should be a last resort; best to get nutrients from whole foods (unprocessed grains)
- The order in which we consume food effects our bodies ability to use it.
Estimates abound about the number of calories burned while hiking. Generally 4,000 – 5,000 calories per day for Males who are carrying 20-40% of their body weight, (3,500-4,500 for Females). The general problem stated well here:
"Both "U" and "ME" set out to gain 20lbs. before even setting foot on the A.T.. We spent the winter fattening up and training, which was a waste of time because nothing we did prapared us for the riggers of the hike. We spent numerous months planning nutritious meals and even grew our own veggies. We supplemented by drinking whey protien drinks before bed for muscle repair. Even with all our preparation, we both lost weight, "U" more so than "ME". So pack on a few and enjoy!"Replace the Calories with Food
Men will discover the need to generally carry about 2 – 2.5 lbs of dehydrated food per hiking day. (more detailed explanation available at http://www-db.stanford.edu/~crespo/outing/backpackfood.html). A hiker going 5 days between re-supply points would need an average of 10-12.5 pounds. These amounts can be lowered by choosing foods that have a higher calorie to oz (cal/oz ration). Discussed in more detail in this forum: http://www.whiteblaze.net/forum/showthread.php?t=6035
Replace the Calories with Your Body
Many hikers report weight loss. Men lose an average of 17 pounds, while women tend to lose less weight. Weight loss is a bigger problem for men. It is not uncommon to hear reports of 45+ lbs. lost during a thru-hike. Many do not have this kind of weight to spare.
Eat Complete Proteins
Protein is complete in meat. Vegetarians must make a complete protein by combining foods. Complete Proteins are formed when amino acids combine with protein to make a complete protein. When eaten in combination at the same meal (or separately throughout the day), your body receives all nine essential amino acids.
You can combine (combine 2 foods from 2 of different categories to make a complete protein) the following vegetable proteins to make complete proteins.
Example sources of complementary Proteins (3 categories):
1) GRAINS: Barley, Cornmeal, Oats, Buckwheat, Rice, Pasta, Rye, Wheat, Quinoa*
2) LEGUMES: Beans, Dried peas, Peanuts, Chickpeas, Soy products**
3) NUTS/SEEDS: Sesame seeds, Walnuts, Cashews, Pumpkin Seeds, Almonds, other Nuts
(adapted from http://www.bodyforlife2.com/incompletprotein.htm)
Quinoa, it is worth noting, is called the "mother-grain" as almonds are the "mother-nut". Most hikers have almonds on their menu, but the Quinoa has been skipped. (see university of minnissota for good over-view: http://www.wholegrain.umn.edu/grains/quinoa.cfm). Quinoa makes great trail food. Quinoa would be a grain. In some forms Quinoa is a complete protein (the only grain that is a complete protein); unfortunately most Quinoa available in the US has had the outer shell removed, thus it is missing a few of the amino-acids. Therefore, treat most Quinoa as just a super healthy, easy to prepare on the trail, highly adaptable to different flavors, vegetarians dream grain.
BRAGG’s amino-acids. Bragg’s Soy Sauce (http://www.bragg.com/products/liquidaminos.html; not difficult to find locally at any health food store and many larger chains) extracts the essential amino acids in soy necessary for protein formation.. It does not require refrigeration and can be put onto proteins to help make more of the protein usable by adding amino-acids onto them.
A note about soy:
Soy is a hot topic. I have come down definitively against most forms of soy. Still, there is evidence on both sides of the argument. You can read both sides of the argument here: http://creativehealth.netfirms.com/soy_health.shtml. Some soy is still ok: miso, tempeh, and soy sauce. The tempeh is not a viable trail form because it requires refrigeration, but miso is available dried and soy sauce by Bragg’s with the amino-acids is a viable form of soy that requires no refrigeration.
The general attacks on all other types of soy (oils, nuts, tofu, etc.) are as follows:
Soy not only lacks complete protein, zinc and iron, it contains compounds that block the absorption of protein, zinc and iron from other sources. Soy foods increase the body's requirements for vitamin D and B12-both essential for normal growth and development. The best evidence is this: our own government does not recommend the use of soy as a babies formula because it is not good for growth. But you will be growing on the trail if you feed your body well. You will need to repair a lot of muscles (protein). Best to avoid soy when you are stressing your body.
Antithyroid substances found plentifully in soy foods inhibit thyroid function, leading to fatigue and mental problems. Phytoestrogens in soy can inhibit normal development and can cause reproductive and fertility problems later in life. Recent research implicates these phytoestrogens in the development of Alzheimers' and dementia-they are "brain aging" substances. Modern soy products contain carcinogens and toxins formed during processing and all modern soy foods contain MSG, which causes neurological problems, including violent behavior.
(Adapted from articles linked at The Weston A. Price Foundation: http://www.westonaprice.org/cgi-scr...ase=Insensitive)
Dried. Eat it often and eat many varieties. Ensure the inclusion of “tangy” fruits, as they are high in vitamin C.
NOTE: Dr. Brenda L. Braaten points out that "... because Vitamin C is NOT stable to heat, light and air, dried fruits and dried vegetables have lost over 90% of their natural Vitamin C." Find some in-town oranges or other citrus fruit. This makes the choice of “tangy” fruits all the more important. If 90% of the vitamin C is gone when dried, the more vitamin C in the fruit to begin with, then the better.
1) For almost all humans, optimum digestion of nutrients occurs when we eat 80% vegetables (not starchy vegetables) and 20% protein sources with each meal. For section and thru-hikers, this is not viable. Still, to help your body help you, one should try to eat as many greens as possible. There is solid evidence that vegetables are the most important part of the digestive process. The USDA recommended 3-5 serving a day in their 2000 food guidelines. Will you eat that many vegetables on the trail? Would one be wise to try and eat more vegetables? All scientific evidence suggests vegetables are important, yet they are practically non-existent on the trail (http://ucce.ucdavis.edu/files/datastore/234-104.pdf). And for good reason: it is not easy to dehydrate 3-5 servings a day for a 200 day trip. The preperation itself would be an adventure.
a)Greens can be picked on the trail. Newb has a great post about this: http://www.whiteblaze.net/forum/showthread.php?t=7119
b)Dehydrated greens are difficult and not very long lasting (they can continue to oxidize slowly and can go bad easily). Recall Dr. Brenda L. Braaten "... because Vitamin C is NOT stable to heat, light and air, dried fruits and dried vegetables have lost over 90% of their natural Vitamin C." This is a major nutrient loss. Additionally, If one is thru-hiking, they will be hard to find affordable dried greens along the trail. If one is sending themselves food at drop-offs then they can not count on dehydrated vegetables remaining fresh at the end of the trail, not to mention the long difficulty in preparing so-many vegetables. As Minnasottasmith rightly notes, one must think about "preservation method for foods which you are going to eat in quantity (such as every day for ~5 months on a thru-hike). Preparing this many vegetables would be a difficult task. Still, it is worth doing as a way of contributing to your vegetable intake. PKH makes a great suggestion: "An easy way to take greens (or any vegetables for that matter) on the trail is in the form of a dried thick vegetable soup or potage. Use a blender or food processor to achieve the desired consistency, then dry. This lasts a long time, is tasty (season according to your personal preferences) and is very nutritious. I always start with a good stock (beef, chicken or pork) to add flavour."
C) Canned greens are not a viable choice for anyone serious about cal/oz ratios. The best way for long term storage of greens that is affordable and not time-consuming is to buy smoked greens; smoked greens stop oxidizing and maintain almost all their nutrients. I do not know if smoked greens maintain their vitamin C. Since C is NOT stable when given heat, light or air. What I do know is that one smokes greens without putting them close to heat (smoking is not roasting), they give them no light, and the smoking prevents air from reaching the greens: I fill a cup with 50 grams of crushed, dried, smoked greens that are from arguably the worlds most nutritious plant, Yerba Maté. It is worth noting that Argentina military rations are Yerba maté and bread: a complete diet. Drinking 50grams of yerba mate is like drinking a salad! This stuff is no joke: Vitamins b-1, b-2, a, riboflavin, carotene, colin, pantothenic acis, inositol, and 15 types of amino acids. 50grams contains 160% daily iron requirements, 53% daily potassium requirements, and 127% daily magnesium requirements. (4% vitamin C according to the label in front of me). It has over 196 chemicals that your body uses (50 more than green tea). It even has 183 calories/50grams. This stuff rocks:. Did I mention it was cheap (4$-6$ per pound: www.ma-tea.com or find it locally if you are lucky at www.yerbatea.com. Another good source for information is www.guayaki.com as they are the biggest)? Did I mention that it has caffeine in it that is bound differently than other caffeine such that it does not tense your muscles, yet it still awakens your mind. There is much research about this on the internet. This stuff is no joke: since I am not a doctor, I will give you some conservative advice: insure that you are not taking any medications or have any serious medical conditions that could counteract with a stimulant.
If you do decide to try it in a the “time-proven” method that Latin Americans have used for centuries to extract the maximum nutrients with the least amount of water: You need a special tool to extract the tea, which is a special metal straw that weighs under an ounce. The sight ma-tea.com lists the actual weights in grams of their straws. There are other companies too: Just my favorite choice is ma-tea.com because they are information based.
An experienced hiker, The Old Fhart, was wise to remind those seeking to introduce something new that they should test how their body first reacts to a new plant before relying heavily on it; brocalli reduces iodine absorption, spinach can be prevent calcium intake, peanuts can be very bad for some people, and too much of most anything would not be recommended either. In Latin America, they drink the Yerba Mate 3-5 times every day. The argentine world soccer champs drink the yerba mate before each game. Personally, I don’t drink it that much. When I am on the trail I drink it once a day; my wife prefers to drink it twice a day, sometimes I will join her on that second time. The most critical thing to be concerned about with Yerba Mate that I know of is that it is a diuretic, so it will dehydrate. This is why they drink very little water with the tea; I know this seems counter-intuitive but it is explained well at the yerbatea.com site; they state, “NOTE: Yerba Mate is about the tea, not the water. Traditionally, one uses as little water as possible to extract the maximum nutrients. One traditional use of Yerba Mate is as a tonic and diuretic; the water consumed with yerba mate should not count as part of your daily water intake. The gourd and straw combine to create a "reverse french press" in which a large amount of nutrients can be extracted with very little water.”The straw is needed to suck/extract the maximum amount of nutrients with the least amount of water. I also use a small metal cup that is specially designed to allow less tea to be used while extracting all the nutrients. Cup weighs less than 1/2 ounce. It is without a doubt the best source of greens for those on the trail. Anyone else tried this stuff on the trail? Experiences? Smoked greens are perhaps the most cheapest, high nutrient density, trail greens that I know of. I like Yerba Maté since it is already dried for you and the most nutritious, affordable, easy option that has ever been discussed at WhiteBlaze.net.
So in terms of hiking: drink the yerba mate, but be sure you drink plenty of fluids (water!) thru-out the day.
d)Buy dried vegetables. But recall: According to Dr. Brenda L. Braaten "... because Vitamin C is NOT stable to heat, light and air, dried fruits and dried vegetables have lost over 90% of their natural Vitamin C."
Sgt. Rock suggests vegetable bullion cubes, and lipton dried soups that are high in vegetable content (spring vegetable & minestroni).
Minnasottasmith provided the following links which includes seaweed, spinach, and other healthy additions:
Generally, combine/add as many of the above options as you can into your diet. Simply put, the more the better. Your best option is to pick raw greens and do not cook them. Your next best option is Yerba Mate or seaweed, followed by most other dried vegetables. Focus on greens, but carrots are beyond smart.
If you are relying solely on dehydrated vegetables or fruits, then you would be wise to find another source of Vitamin C. Some of your other foods may have vitamin C in them, if not, this may be one of the times when a vitamin-c suppliment is in order if you are relying on dehydrated vegetables. When you get into town, seek out a fresh orange or other citris fruit!
Most foods in the dairy group. (adapted from http://www.mariapoulos.com/clients/...es.html#calcium)
Milk and dishes made with milk, such as potato soup, puddings (e.g., dried milk)
Cheeses like mozzarella, cheddar, Swiss and Parmesan
Yogurt (which can be dehydrated)
Canned fish with soft bones such as sardines, anchovies and salmon or the tips of chicken leg bones (canned goods on the trail not recommended by author, but remain an option).
Leafy green of the cabbage family, such as kale, mustard greens and turnip tops and pak choi.
Tortillas made from lime-processed corn. (must be lime-processed for preservation)
Supplements and Whole Foods
There is unlimited evidence whole grains and vegetables are significantly more valuable than supplements. Eat well to get usable nutrients, don’t assume that a vitamin tablet is a healthy substitute for vitamins from food.
Eating processed foods, like instant white rice, is not a good choice for optimum nutrition. This is especially important for vegetarians, yet applies to everyone.
… many hikers, in the interest of cooking convenience, choose inferior-quality foods, or filler—foods like ramen noodles, instant potatoes, instant white rice, and instant oatmeal—essentially any processed or refined food that's been stripped of key vitamins and minerals. Although it is okay to supplement or mix filler items and the like into your dietary regimen, do not solely rely on them as a main course. It's better to pack out fresh foods and carry more weight than starve your body of the nutrients it needs and deserves. You'll get more energy from unprocessed foods and whole grains. (http://gorp.away.com/gorp/activity/...od/hik_veg2.htm)
Whole grains do not consume much more cooking fuel when they are allowed to sit in water/soak for a short period of time before cooking them. Some grains may take longer. Quinoa, for example, can be soaked for 30 minutes before cooking, then cooking time is under 5 minutes. It is worth taking the time to cook whole foods: all you have is time, time is what you do, and one would be wise to use their time to treat their body well.
Order in which We Consume Food
The way we eat is important. Eating vegetables (or drinking yerba mate) with, or immediately after each meal, will aid in digestion and your bodies ability to maximize the nutrient intake of the food. You will be unlikely to intake 80% non-starchy vegetables, but you would be wise to find a viable daily green.
Another factor is best described by a nutritionist/doctor; Brenda L. Braaten, Ph.D., R.D.. She discusses how to feed the body while hiking in order to avoid having your body run out of energy.
"Hitting the wall" is due to depletion of muscle glycogen/carbohydrate. You feel like someone has put lead in your boots and it is major anguish to move. You've just run out of carbohydrate stores and the muscle has to rely solely on fat for energy. Fat requires oxygen, so you can only move as fast as oxygen gets supplied to your muscles, and there's no backup from carbohydrates. CURE: eat/drink carbohydrates. But better yet, PREVENT it from happening by feeding your body small frequent doses (25-50 grams every few hours) of carbohydrates throughout the day, thus conserving your stored carbohydrates.
To maintain energy levels over the long haul, snack on carbohydrate AND fat. Like M&M peanuts, GORP, PopTarts, crackers or granola bars. AVOID excessive amounts of the high sugar snacks, especially just before beginning your day--they may cause insulin levels to rise, which will work against you, locking your fat in storage, rather than making it available to your muscles. Proper training will make your muscles more efficient fat burners, thereby sparing glycogen. Dr. Brenda L. Braaten continues:
1. Snack, Snack, SNACK! Throughout long treks, Munch. Because BOTH fat and carbohydrates are being burned in active muscle, the ideal way to maximize relative fuel consumption is to keep eating a mixture, but carbohydrates are especially critical during exercise. The body has an ample supply of fat stored up, so even if you don't eat any fat, there's plenty available in the bloodstream, being delivered from storage. Not so with carbohydrates. Storage is limited. See Table 2 below for Snacks ranked by carbohydrate content.
Give muscles a chance to replenish their carbohydrate stores. It takes several days to fully replete stores after they are exhausted/depleted. On a long trek, you may find your energy level flagging earlier and earlier with each passing day. Feeling tired, weak, anemic. You don't have the same stamina. It's likely not because you are suddenly iron deficient, but rather because you are running out of stored carbohydrate. Plan a day of rest following a particularly long grueling day and eat plenty of complex carbohydrates (i.e., whole grains, starchy vegetables). [Notice how many through-hikers do just the opposite. They eat high carbohydrate meals on the trail, then bee-line to town to gorge on a pint of Ben and Jerry's ice cream and a dozen donuts after single-handedly inhaling a large pizza with everything on it. Where does all that fat go? It's NOT replenishing depleted glycogen stores (humans can't convert fat to carbohydrate effectively). If it doesn't go straight through you (diarrhea), some of the fat goes to replete the fat stores in the heart and muscle, but most of the excess goes right back into storage to be lugged around a few more miles.]
Dances with Mice hits this point well. He asks, "And all the food and nutrient talk is well and good but has anybody mentioned that long distance hikers probably get about 20% of all their calories from town stops? That's the time to 'veg out' (heh!) and hit the AYCE salad bars."3. TIMING
Both the Dr. and Dances with Mice are noting to take advantage of the town visits not so much to load up on ice cream, rather to "veg out" or as the Dr. summizes, "eat plenty of complex carbohydrates (i.e., whole grains, starchy vegetables)." Still get the Ice Cream, just eat it on the trail rather than in town. Your body will thank you.
Eat frequent carbohydrate snacks, especially during and immediately after a hard workout (15 minutes to 1 hour after quitting for the day, so keep your dinner menu simple). During the day, about 20-30 grams of carbohydrate per hour is a reasonable goal. 20 grams for easy hiking; 30 grams for more challenging terrain. And the sugar can come from complex carbohydrates (="starch"/ "whole grains"/"high fiber" foods), which are better nutrients all around. Complex carbohydrates release sugar over a longer period of time, rather than getting one big dose all at once. A second benefit of complex carbohydrates is that they are more likely to supply the B vitamins and minerals you need. (Refer to Table 2, Trail Snacks, below.)
4. Never eat a high sugar snack just before exercising.
Insulin, a hormone released when sugar is eaten, stimulates cells to absorb glucose from the bloodstream, thus causing blood glucose levels to fall. If you then begin to exercise, glucose levels will further plummet, thus decreasing your endurance. A drink of water or milk would be better than drinking a sugar-laden soda just before you exercise, since the sugar will cause you to run out of energy faster. If you must mainline sugar, eat it in small doses during or after exercise, but not before!
Hypoglycemics/diabetics: A special alert: a high carbohydrate diet (70:15:15) can work against you. If you're trying to preserve your glycogen stores for the long day ahead, insulin says, " Burn carbohydrate, not fat", but you really want to preserve that glycogen as long as you can. What to do? Avoid eating excessive amounts of simple sugars, so insulin won't be released. Spare glycogen by eating complex carbohydrates (starches) or small quantities of combination foods--foods that contain protein, sugar and fat (i.e., cheese and crackers or a Pop Tart), so that absorption is delayed and insulin response is lower.
(adapted from http://www.thru-hiker.com/articles.asp?subcat=12&cid=39)
This primer will hopefully spark some new ideas about the way you view trail food. Please follow all the above links for more detailed information. Still, no primer is complete; your future contributions would be appreciated. Please post any additions, corrections, or suggested changes to the following forum: http://www.whiteblaze.net/forum/showthread.php?t=8142