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.
•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 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.
The Quick Basics
•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.
Your Body Will Burn More Calories than Normal
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. 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)
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
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. 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.
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 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.
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.]
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.