The Danger of Fueling with Faux Foods

wind river cirque of towers

This post originally appeared on The Trek, which you can find here

 

Hikers burn thousands of calories a day, so the quality of the food doesn’t matter, right?

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

When it comes to food on a long trail, the focus is usually on calories and palatability. Little attention is paid to the long-term impact of our food choices on our health and the environment.  I’ll outline 10 reasons to make real food your primary fuel for endurance endeavors, as well as simple steps for how to make the transition.

What are Faux Foods?

Before we can avoid them, we must know how to identify them.

Faux foods are:

  • Foods where real ingredients have been stripped out and replaced with substitutions.
  • Foods that are created in a lab rather than grown in soil.
  • Foods that have an ingredient label containing substances you can’t pronounce.
  • Foods that are produced in a way that’s destructive to the environment.

‘Faux foods’ may not be the most accurate descriptor, as the foods are not necessarily fake, but it’s a good catchall for these foods, and it’s catchier than ‘non-food junk’, so that’s what I’ve settled on.

real food backpacker

What This Means for Hikers

It’s hard to imagine a diet worse in quality and nutritional benefits than the Standard American Diet (SAD), which is an obvious culprit in the U.S. obesity epidemic (affecting 1 in 3 adults) and a strong contributor to the current chronic disease crisis (affecting 1 in 2 adults).

But there is one diet that is arguably even worse, and that’s the standard Thru-Hiker diet. This diet consists primarily of heavily processed, packaged foods, which are loaded with preservatives, artificial ingredients, colorings, trans fats, and excess sugar. Of course, this way of eating developed because hikers need high calorie food, which is light, packable, and tasty, but many are unaware of the dangers of faux foods and the alternatives which exist.

While many hikers can get by on Snickers and Doritos for a few months with seemingly few consequences, junk food has real implications on your energy, your performance, and even the outcome of your hike.

PCT katiegerber.com

 

10 Reasons to Reconsider Your Resupply

1) You Are What You Eat

You’ve no doubt heard this before, but just let that sink in. What you eat literally becomes the components of your body. Do you want to be made up of artificial ingredients that were synthesized in a lab or would you prefer your cells to be made up of real, living things which grew from soil, sunlight, water, and air?

2) Inflammation

The full body inflammation caused by excess intake of faux foods makes us more susceptible to injury and illness. In 2017, injury and illness accounted for 17% of AT hikers quitting their thru-hike attempt. The main drivers of inflammation in a typical hiker diet arerefined sugar and trans fats.

3) Gut Health

Intricately tied to inflammation is the health of the gut lining. Sugar and refined ingredients, as well as several food additives and preservatives, have been shown to disrupt the digestive system – especially when exposure is chronic. This also impairs absorption of the limited nutrients that are being taken in.

4) Slower Recovery

If your body is lacking in essential micronutrients, it takes longer to get back to full speed. Thru-hikers beat their bodies up daily, so fast recovery is key to feeling great day after day.

5) Increased Incidence of Cardiovascular Disease, Autoimmune Conditions, and Allergies

Faux foods are more likely to result in these long-term health conditions that will affect you long after you’re off the trail. Processed foods are also more likely to cause allergies.

6) Slower Wound Healing

Chronic inflammation suppresses your immune system, thereby causing slower wound healing. It’s not uncommon to endure small wounds on trail, and quick healing reduces the chances of developing a serious infection that could end a hike.

7) Blood Sugar Balance and Bonking

Completing a long hike often requires long days. The key to having sustained energy and hiking big miles is maintaining balanced blood sugar by steering clear of highly-refined, processed foods.

8) Mental Clarity & Motivation

It’s often said that thru-hiking success is 90% mental. Whether you agree with that or not, there’s no doubt that the mental game is a huge part of successfully completing your adventure. Steady blood sugar helps you make better decisions and stay motivated over the long haul.

9) Post-hike Depletion

Most hikers are ambitious people with big plans. Rather than ending your hike exhausted and burnt out, it’s possible to recover faster and be ready for your next adventure without having to spend months on the couch in front of the TV. Faux foods lack the nutrients and antioxidants that will help you bounce back faster.

10) Overeating and Carrying Extra Food

Faux foods often have plenty of calories, but are deficient in nutrients, leaving the body unsatisfied. This leads to endless hunger and results in carrying more food than you may actually need.

BONUS:

The environmental impact of our choices is something we all need to be aware of. Industrial, highly-processed, GMO-filled foods increase the profits of mega-corporations at the expense of the environment we love so much.

pollution

5 Ways to Avoid the Pitfalls of Faux Foods

When it comes to eating for endurance, and overall personal and planetary health, I tend to follow a credo more than a specific diet. I don’t like the word ‘diet’ because it conjures up ideas of strict rules and restriction, which is not what I’m suggesting. A credo is more of a set of principles that guide your actions and beliefs.

Think of your food choices as a continuum with a 100% Faux Food diet on one end and a 100% seasonal, organic, unprocessed, local (SOUL) diet on the other end. This framework helps me work towards making better choices when I can, but not getting so caught up in rules and ‘shoulds’ that I give up entirely.

Here are a few of the basic principles and how you can apply them to your next outdoor adventure.

1) Eat more whole, unprocessed foods on trail

Nuts, seeds, dried fruit, and dehydrated veggies are all great choices. There are lots of ideas online and you can also check out my free Eat for Endurance ebook for more ideas.

2) Read labels

This will help avoid excessive added sugar, trans fat, and additives like artificial sweeteners, high fructose corn syrup, sodium nitrate, sodium sulfate, food dyes, potassium bromate, and MSG.

3) Send resupply boxes to places with limited options

Don’t be stuck eating gas station food for a week because you didn’t plan ahead. You’ll feel gross and you’ll compromise your energy and performance.

4) Make up for micronutrient deficiencies in town

Choose fresh vegetables and salads instead of (or at least in addition to) pizza, burgers, and beer.

5) Make small changes

It doesn’t have to be an all or nothing approach. Here are some ideas:

Add in a greens powder, such as athletic greensamazing grass, or organifi each day.This can make up for micronutrient deficiencies on a long hike.

Swap out some candy for dried fruit. If your body is craving quick energy, eating fruit will give you a quick dose of carbs, with enough fiber to maintain blood sugar balance, and without all the added junk. And there are SO MANY options: raisins, cranberries, apricots, blueberries, mango, banana, etc.

Look for chips and other crunchy/salty snacks with as few ingredients as possible. For example, compare the following:

  • Ingredients in Organic Tortilla Chips: organic corn, organic sunflower oil, salt.
  • Ingredients in Nacho Cheese Doritos: whole corn, vegetable oil (corn, soybean, and/or sunflower oil), salt, cheddar cheese (milk, cheese cultures, salt, enzymes), maltodextrin, whey, monosodium glutamate, buttermilk solids, romano cheese (part skim cow’s milk, cheese cultures, salt, enzymes), whey protein concentrate, onion powder, partially hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oil, corn flour, disodium phosphate, lactose, natural and artificial flavor, dextrose, tomato powder, spices, lactic acid, artificial color (including Yellow 6, Yellow 5, Red 40), citric acid, sugar, garlic powder, red and green bell pepper powder, sodium caseinate, disodium inosinate, disodium guanylate, nonfat milk solids, whey protein isolate, corn syrup solids.

http://www.personaltrainervancouver.com/adventures/attachment/hiking-stock-image/

Start slow and do what you can.

Even making a few small changes is a good step towards fueling yourself for performance and creating a better environment at the same time.

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Making Progress: Hashimoto’s Update

This is the second post in a series about my journey with the autoimmune condition Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. Here’s part 1, in case you missed it. My intention with this series is to share my personal experience so that anyone who recognizes themselves in the symptoms can move forward with healing and know that lifestyle changes can make a HUGE positive impact. 

Contrary to my wildest hopes, my Hashimoto’s and adrenal issues did not spontaneously go into remission as soon as I started targeting them. Unconsciously acting in alignment with the negativity bias, I tend to see how far I still have to go and what’s still wrong more than I focus on how far I’ve come. Can you relate?

However, though I can’t say I feel 100% everyday, when I look back at how I felt 3 years ago, or even just a full year ago, without a doubt, I feel much better.

In this post, I’ll briefly discuss what symptoms have improved for me, what I’m still struggling with, and a brief overview of the protocol.

What has improved for me?

My energy levels throughout the day are much more consistent. I don’t struggle with afternoon fatigue much. I can go running and go to the gym again without feeling completely drained or experiencing the deep muscle fatigue that I couldn’t shake previously.

My hormones are becoming more balanced. I know this because, among other indicators, my monthly cycle is regular again. Also, my sleep cycle has regulated. I feel tired in the evenings and fall asleep easily, I sleep through the night, and I usually wake without an alarm, with plenty of energy to start the day. This also indicates to me that my cortisol level and rhythm is balanced. See this article if you’re curious to learn more about adrenal health, especially as it pertains to endurance athletes.

I no longer struggle with feeling cold as much as I used to, especially in my hands. I used to have constantly cold hands and feet. This was particularly a struggle in shoulder seasons and on winter adventures when my hands would get so cold (even with multiple gloves on) that I would need my adventure buddy to help me with zippers, clasps, and opening food wrappers. This was so frustrating and often unsettling on solo adventures.

My immune system feels strong. Despite several sick coworkers, being out in public places often, and having a very full schedule, I haven’t gotten sick this winter. I never used to get sick much either, but this is also confirmation that my immune system is healthy.

Finally, (and this is huge), I feel like my digestive system is working so much better again. As I mentioned in the previous post, leaky gut is one of the factors which contribute to the expression of autoimmune disorders, so getting my gut health in order is top priority for me. Pardon the graphic nature of this next paragraph, but this is a health website after all, so properly documenting my full experience is important and hopefully helpful to anyone else who is struggling.

How did my gut health change? I started digesting and assimilating my food much better. I know this because my BMs went from not-so-regular and loose to regular and well-formed. This is so important because it was very noticeable evidence that I was healing my leaky gut. Hooray! That translates to less immune system activation (a good thing in this case) because large proteins are no longer permeating the gut lining. Digesting my food properly has also given me more energy.

I didn’t realize my digestion was so out of whack until it got better. I spent several years as a baker and pastry chef. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, and when I would eat bread, it was organic and naturally-leavened (think sourdough), so it’s not like I was going crazy with pastries and bread on the daily. In retrospect though, I now realize that even that small amount of gluten was likely significantly contributing to my poor gut health, and the expression of autoimmune symptoms.

What still needs improvement?

It’s satisfying to reflect on the positive changes that have taken place, because healing any health condition with diet and lifestyle changes takes true dedication and commitment, and it can be challenging.

That being said, many autoimmune conditions can be put into remission, but you can’t expect them to disappear overnight. While I feel significant improvement in many of my thyroid symptoms, there are a couple things I still struggle with.

One is not feeling as resilient as I used to be. For example, if I don’t get the sleep that I need, I really struggle with energy levels the next day. My hope is that as I continue to repair my hormone profile, I’ll be able to bounce back quicker from a night of poor sleep.

Another issue is occasional brain fog. While I feel much more clear and focused and have better memory recall than I did a couple years ago, I still find that some days, I just don’t feel as on point as I know I’m capable of being. This is greatly impacted by diet and sleep.

Finally, and this is a difficult one for anyone athletic, or anyone at all really, is that my body is still holding on to some extra weight despite a clean diet and regular movement practice. This makes sense since the thyroid governs metabolism, but it’s frustrating none-the-less.

What’s the protocol I’ve followed?

I’ll briefly outline the protocol I’ve followed and then will dive in more deeply in a future post.

It was important to me to try as many lifestyle changes as possible to heal my thyroid gland before going on medication, so the protocol I used is based entirely around diet, sleep, stress management, and supplements.

It’s organized in 3 stages, including a liver cleanse, an adrenal reset, and a gut healing phase. Each stage progressively eliminated more trigger foods and focused on key supplements to start taking. Lifestyle practices, such as getting optimal sleep and reducing stress as much as possible, were also emphasized.

I definitely didn’t complete the program perfectly, but the changes I made were enough to elicit big shifts in my health. I understand there’s still a journey ahead, but the progress so far is promising.

Post questions/comments below or reach out to me via my contact form, and keep an eye out for the next installment.

 

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Could Adrenal Fatigue Be Hindering Your Physical Performance?

pacific crest trail

This article originally appeared on The Trek, which you can read here.

Is your stamina and endurance suffering? Have you been getting more colds? Do you often hit a mid-afternoon slump? Do you feel anxious, down, and lack the motivation you used to have?

If you had asked me these questions a couple of years ago, the answer would have been a resounding “yes to all of the above.” I didn’t realize it at the time, but through long-distance running and hiking, plus ignoring my body’s feedback, I was gradually developing Adrenal Fatigue.

While there’s a lot of debate within the medical community about the existence and etiology of Adrenal Fatigue, the term is still widely used in popular media and within the general public. Increasingly, “Adrenal Fatigue” is replaced with more accurate descriptors like “HPA (hypothalamic-adrenal-pituitary) axis dysregulation” and “General Adaptation Syndrome.” But regardless of what you call it, the condition describes a set of symptoms resulting from the many effects of chronic stress on the body.

More on that in a moment.

What are the adrenals and how do they become “fatigued?”

The adrenals are two pea-sized glands that sit atop the kidneys and are part of the HPA axis, which controls our stress response (aka the fight or flight response). When we encounter stress, whether real or perceived, a series of hormones trigger the adrenals to release cortisol into the bloodstream to make us focused and alert. Heart rate increases and glucose is released to fuel muscles. Once danger has passed, cortisol levels return to normal, insulin takes care of the extra blood sugar that was released, and all is well.

Historically, dangers were short-lived. Imagine the lion chasing the gazelle. The gazelle goes into the flight response, outruns the lion, and then goes back to grazing. The problem occurs when the danger or perceived danger never stops. This is common in our world where stress comes in many forms from physical stress, such as over-training, to emotional and psychological stress, such as concerns over finances and relationships.

lion gazelle
Photo source

Constant stress is not common in nature. The gazelle doesn’t keep stressing about the lion after the danger has passed. When we’re constantly stressed, in addition to having extra cortisol in our bodies, we also pump out extra insulin. This leads to insulin resistance, weight gain and cravings for sugar, salt, and fat.

This results in the HPA axis becoming dysregulated. The HPA axis affects systems throughout the body including thyroid and metabolism, immune function, and hormone production.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Because the HPA axis governs several functions in the body, the symptoms are wide ranging. As anyone who has hiked a long trail will attest to, it is a demanding endeavor, and physical, emotional, and psychological stress is a constant companion. If you find yourself nodding yes to most of these, read on to discover steps you can take to mitigate adrenal stress.

Some of the more common symptoms include:

  • Waking up not fully rested and having difficulty falling asleep.
  • Craving sugar, fat, and salt.
  • Hitting an afternoon slump and craving sugar, caffeine, or both.
  • Gaining weight without changes in diet or exercise.
  • Feeling anxious, down, or lacking motivation.
  • Getting sick more often.
  • Experiencing low libido and hormonal issues, such as infertility,
  • Experiencing brain fog, such as issues with memory and focus.

Why are hikers particularly at risk?

Mt Whitney

Adrenal Fatigue exists on a spectrum ranging from adrenal overdrive to burnout and exhaustion.

As mentioned, stress is the driver of HPA dysfunction and that stress can come in many forms. It can be long-term emotional stress, like worrying that you’re not going to successfully finish the trail, that you’ll run out of money, or that you won’t find a job when you get home. It can also be physical stress, like walking 20+ miles daily and maintaining  a poor diet. A disrupted circadian rhythm caused by poor sleep, disrupted blood sugar from eating processed foods and refined carbs, and inflammation from substance abuse, gut issues, chronic illness, bacterial infections, and wounds, among many other factors, can all contribute to the overall stress load of the body.

When you are chronically under-eating and over-exercising, the body goes into survival mode. Your body reduces thyroid production (which plays a large role in metabolism), reduces sex hormones, and increases cortisol while you try to meet the demands of these stressors. Eventually this leads to HPA dysfunction.

The physical stress of a long hike, coupled with the nutrient-poor diet and often low-quality sleep of hikers, sets them up as prime candidates for developing HPA axis dysfunction. Those who set out on thru-hikes also tend to be driven, Type-A personalities who ignore their bodies’ red flags and push through the discomfort.

I know that was the case for me on the PCT in 2014. I actually felt great for the majority of the trail. I didn’t experience any injuries or illnesses on trail. I ate a fairly healthy whole foods diet. It wasn’t until I returned home and tried to start training for my next ultra marathon that I discovered my stamina and endurance were completely gone. Many other symptoms, such as lethargy, muscle fatigue, and hair loss were surfacing as well. After a long process of searching for answers, I discovered I had adrenal dysfunction and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. Some of the symptoms were there all along and I’d been ignoring them. My salt cravings, for instance, which gave me my trail name (Salty), are one that come to mind. Frequently experiencing cold hands is another symptom I’d been ignoring. Most of it didn’t hit me until I’d returned home though.

Before you end up with complete adrenal exhaustion, look for these early indicators:

  • You experience a loss in appetite. If you’re normally hungry, then suddenly you’re not, this may indicate that you’re over-stressed.
  • You have an inability to fall asleep and stay asleep, even when you’re exhausted.
  • Your mood is off and you’re unmotivated, even though you’re living your dream and hiking through some of the most beautiful parts of the country.
  • You’re really cold all the time (disrupted thyroid function).
  • You’re sore more frequently, long after you have your “trail legs.”

How do I know if I have Adrenal Fatigue?

hammock

There are a couple tests which can be done by an integrative or functional medicine doctor to assess adrenal health. The most common is to check salivary or serum cortisol levels over a 24-hour period to see where there are dips and spikes in cortisol. Additionally, doctors can test other hormones such as DHEA, progesterone, and insulin, as well as immune markers to evaluate the effects of stress on your body.

If you’re experiencing some of these symptoms, you don’t need to wait for a test to begin treating yourself. Hikers may be able to improve symptoms with the following approaches:

  • Reduce your stress as much as possible. Uncertainty is a big driver of stress. Set yourself up for less stress by having good health and solid finances before your hike as well as a plan for when you finish. Also, find support on your hike through fellow hikers and staying in touch with loved ones at home. Enjoy your adventure and don’t pressure yourself to hike at a pace that doesn’t suit you.
  • Improve your sleep habits. Sleep is your prime recovery time, and how you sleep is how you hike. Make sure your sleeping pad is comfortable, your bag is warm enough, and avoid stimulants before bed.
  • Regulate your blood sugar levels. Adjust your resupply strategy to include less sugar and more nutrient-dense foods. Include a healthy fat and protein with each meal. Fuel consistently to avoid bonking.
  • Cut back on caffeine consumption. Caffeine can be a major adrenal stressor and it’s easy to overdo it on trail. Many drink mixes contain a lot of caffeine. For more consistent energy, opt for low-sugar electrolyte blends instead to flavor your water.
  • Exercise, but not too much. This is next to impossible for thru-hikers, of course, but you can still listen to your body. If you’re constantly fatigued, give yourself an extra zero day in town. It’s your hike. Take care of your body, so you can finish the trail healthy.
  • Add in adaptogenic herbs, such as Ashwagandha, Eleuthero, or Rhodiola. These can be sent in resupply boxes as teas, capsules, or tinctures. These herbs have a long history of traditional use in various cultures as well as scientific research showing their stress-protective properties. If you’re prone to stress, consider them an insurance policy.
  • Take a daily multivitamin with B-complex and Magnesium. Even when you’re eating healthy on trail, you can run low on key micronutrients and stress depletes them even faster. Again, consider it a nutrition insurance policy. Throw a Ziploc with a few multi-vitamins in each resupply box. They’re not that heavy.

It’s important to note that I’m not a medical doctor and this is not medical advice. I don’t diagnose, treat, or prescribe. HPA axis dysfunction is a complex topic and it’s beyond the scope of this article to discuss it in full detail. This article is intended to raise awareness of an issue that hikers may be prone to experiencing, and which frequently goes undiagnosed since symptoms are wide-ranging and often confused with the ‘normal’ discomfort of thru-hiking.

If you want to know more, speak to a licensed medical professional.

If you’re seeking support with other health-related goals, such as increasing energy and stamina, eating well on trail, and preparing for or recovering from your hike, check out my other blog posts or schedule a free discovery session

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