For the curious, for the gear heads (which I am not), here’s a list of the gear I carried on my 2800+ mile hike of the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) this past summer.
Some of the items were only carried for certain sections (i.e. snow gear up north, bear protection in bear country, etc.). I made note of those items in the list below. I didn’t include weights for the items worn, but all other items have weights listed.
As mentioned in my previous posts, my average food weight is about 1.5-1.75 pounds of food per day. You can read in depth about my healthy, lightweight meal planning strategy here.
Low Carb. High Carb. Low Fat. High Fat. Paleo. Whole30. Vegan. Keto. And on and on and on. There are SO MANY diets out there!
How do you know if the one you’ve chosen is right for you?
It can be tough. This post will help you decide.
Generally speaking, I’m not a big fan of the one-size-fits-all diet mentality. I’ve found that most people do better over the long term with an individualized, flexible,and sustainable approach to eating. But, perhaps you were inspired to try a certain diet because you saw a co-worker get great results with it and you’ve been seeing it all over the headlines. Or maybe you have a certain diet that you adopted years ago, but now you’re not feeling that great and you’re wondering if it might be related to food.
Here’s the thing: nutrition is an evolving science. New studies come out daily, often with seemingly contradictory information. To avoid driving yourself insane by adjusting your habits to match the latest headline of what’s “healthy” this week, the key to long-term diet sanity and effectiveness is to tune in, get to know your own body, and be flexible enough to change over time.
Each of us is unique, and therefore each of us require an individualized approach to diet, movement, supplementation, and more. It’s up to you to figure out what works for YOU. We’ll cover later in this post
To avoid wasting time and effort (or even harming your health) on an approach that’s not right for you, use the following indicators to assess your current diet.
How’s Your Energy?
The right diet for you will give you sustained energy throughout the day, without the need to rely on stimulants like caffeine and sugar. Different macronutrient ratios work for different people. You may need higher carb, higher fat, or higher protein. If you don’t know, track your intake for a week and test out different ratios. A good (FREE) tracking app is My Fitness Pal. Start with 40% fat, 40% carbs, 20% protein and adjust from there. Pay attention to your energy throughout the day.
Are You Satisfied?
Are you constantly feeling deprived, and hungry, and always thinking about food? Do you have intense cravings for specific foods, such as sweets? The right diet for you will leave you feeling satisfied, not constantly thinking about your next meal or reaching for snacks an hour after you have a meal. Not being satisfied could be due to the amount of food, the quality of food, the micronutrients (or lack of), or the macronutrient ratio. Most people feel most satisfied when they have a mix of protein, fat, and carbs with each meal.
How is Your Digestion?
Your digestion can be a major indicator that a certain diet is not for you. “Normal” bowel function means that you’re having 1-3 bowel movements daily. They should be soft and well-formed. Check out the Bristol Stool Chart for more details. What you eat directly impacts your digestion.
If your stool frequency or consistency is off or if you’re experiencing a lot of gas, cramping, or bloating after meals, it’s an indication that your diet may not be a good fit for you. Oftentimes, this indicates an undetected food intolerance. Your digestion is at the root of your health, so it’s important to get this dialed in.
How’s Your Mood?
Feeling anxious, depressed, or blue? The gut is often referred to as the second brain because the health of the gut has a direct impact on neurotransmitter production and overall mood. Did you know that an estimated 90% of serotonin is produced in the gut?! In part, this is courtesy of your microbiome, the trillions of yeast and bacteria that live in the gut. The health of your microbiome is directly impacted by your diet (hint: gut bugs LOVE to feed on soluble fiber). Additionally, if your diet deprives you of essential nutrients, like B12 or Omega-3 fatty acids for instance, this could also lead to mood impairment. Similarly, if your diet contains anti-nutrients or other gut lining irritants, you may be harming your gut lining and impairing your ability to extract all the nutrition from your food.
Chronic Health Conditions
This could include many different things, such as allergies, diabetes, arthritis, asthma, thyroid conditions, chronic inflammation, and so much more. Often times, a key component of underlying inflammation and disruption stems from components in the diet that don’t work for your particular body. Sometimes, this could be gluten, dairy, soy, eggs, and other common allergens. Other times, it may be less common allergies, like nightshades, or something ‘random’, like green beans.
(Bonus) Health Markers, like your weight and blood markers.
Regular tracking of weight and certain blood markers over time can clue you in to health conditions that may be diet-related. For example, if you’re gaining weight without changes in your diet or exercise, there may be aspects to your diet that are affecting your blood sugar balance and the hormones that regulate appetite and metabolism, like insulin, ghrelin, leptin, and thyroid. Additionally, specific blood markers like hemoglobin A1C can clue you in to chronically high insulin levels, and hsC-Reactive Protein can give you an indication of inflammation levels-both of which may be diet related.
How to find what’s right for you.
If you went through this list and realized that your current diet may not be working for you, no need to stress! Finding what’s right for you is relatively straight-forward. In addition to the tips above, use the following exercises to get on the right track for YOUR biology.
Keep a Food & Mood Journal
This can begin to clue you into to symptoms you may be experiencing after eating certain foods. A Google search will give you a quick template from which you can DIY your own. I do this with all my clients when we begin our work together. It’s a great exercise to both create an awareness of what you’re actually eating throughout the day as well as provide you with insight into foods that may be causing symptoms.
Complete an Elimination Diet
If you want to take it a level deeper, and particularly if you’re experiencing a lot of health symptoms (fatigue, allergies, weight loss resistance, sleep issues, energy issues, etc.), you might consider at least a basic elimination diet. I have a free guide outlining the entire process, which you can download here. Honestly, I’d recommend everyone try an elimination diet at least once.
Get Back in Touch with Your Intuition
Due to the one-size-fits-all nature of many diets, and all the diet ‘rules’, it’s easy to get further and further away from the innate wisdom of our bodies. This can be a long process, but it can be helpful to get back in touch with what your body really craves and needs. One place to start is the book Intuitive Eating.
How are you feeling about your diet after reading this post? Let me know in the comments!
What kind of character do you want to play in this lifetime?
Do you want to be someone who is calm, resilient, and adaptable in the face of adversity? Or do you want to be someone who is easily perturbed and thrown off kilter each time an unexpected road block is put before you? Most likely, you chose the former.
There’s actually no right answer. The real point is that you get to choose. You have the opportunity to train yourself to be whatever type of person you want to be. Have you ever taken the time to ask yourself who you want to be? Have you considered how you want to interact with reality to sculpt yourself into the type of person you desire to be?
This article examines specifically how you show up during moments of discomfort, but know that you can actively sculpt any part of your character at any point in your life. And the even more exciting part is that life is constantly giving us opportunities to do this 🙂
We’re conditioned to believe that we’re either born with certain personality traits or we’re not. ‘He’s outgoing.’ ‘She’s assertive.’ ‘He’s uptight.’ It’s as if this is what we’re born with and that’s it. However, what I believe, and what I’ve found to be true in my own life, is that we have choice over which traits we strengthen within ourselves and which we weaken.
Even if you already know this to be true, have you intentionally decided how you wish to sculpt your character? I think many people, either consciously or unconsciously, make the decision to float through life. They allow life to happen to them. They unconsciously react rather than consciously creating what they want.
While it’s certainly possible to continue drifting through life, reacting to whatever comes your way, I find that it makes for a far more fascinating journey to actively engage with reality in a way that turns me into the type of person I desire to become.
Seek Discomfort to Speed Your Growth
I’ve found adversity, challenges, and obstacles (i.e. anything which elicits discomfort) to be particularly powerful for character sculpting. The truth is that to get stronger, we must push ourselves just beyond the edge of our comfort zones. And, by definition, that requires discomfort. This applies whether we’re talking about getting stronger physically, mentally, spiritually, or emotionally.
Like any animal, we humans instinctively shy away from discomfort. That’s our nature. Society encourages and reinforces that behavior. We have machines that can perform nearly any task for us, so that we no longer need to do much physical labor to attend to our daily lives. We go from our temperature-controlled home to our temperature-controlled car to our temperature-controlled office, so we never have to feel the heat or the cold or be exposed to severe weather. When we don’t get first place in the spelling bee, we’re given a participation award, so there’s no disappointment to experience and no reflection on how we can improve. When the partner breaks up with us, our friends tell us that they didn’t deserve us anyway, so we never have to reflect on the role we played in the break-up and how it potentially could’ve been avoided.
This comes at a cost, though. We lose our ability to adapt. We lose our resilience. We miss out on golden opportunities to grow, expand, learn, and become stronger.
There are countless ways, both subtle and obvious, where we circumvent emotions and experiences which could actually be alchemized into our greatest gifts. If we train ourselves to shift our perspective, we are suddenly rewarded with the chance to become a better version of ourselves. In essence, to up-level.
When we train ourselves to lean into discomfort and excavate the lesson from each experience, we free up so much precious life energy. We no longer waste energy resisting what is. Instead, we’re able to use that energy to sculpt the version of ourselves that we desire.
Instead of being in victim mode and saying “Why did this happen to me?”, what if you shifted the question to “How is this happening for me?”? Do you see the mind shift there? One is disempowering; the other is transformational.
“No tree which the wind does not often blow against is firm and strong; for it is stiffened by the very act of being shaken, and plants its roots more securely: those which grow in a sheltered valley are brittle: and so it is to the advantage of good men, and causes them to be undismayed, that they should live much amidst alarms, and learn to bear with patience what is not evil save to him who endures it ill.”
Let’s look at a few examples. I think the physical realm is the easiest place to start.
This morning I attempted to do a 42-minute power yoga video. I say attempted because this was the first yoga I’ve done in about 5 months and I only made it about ¾ of the way through. The reduction in my arm strength was quite apparent.
I was initially discouraged, but I soon remembered what a gift this was. I could clearly see my weaknesses and tailor my training to address them. This happens to me often in fitness. I get so wrapped up in doing the same workout routine. The body adapts quickly and I stop progressing. However, I don’t notice that I’m stagnant, or at least it takes a while to notice. I’ve learned that if I want to keep improving, I have to be mindful and intentionally seek challenges.
In the mental, emotional, and spiritual realms, examples of this practice are a bit less distinct. One recent scenario that comes to mind is an experience I watched a friend endure. Said friend met a man while visiting a hot springs resort 5 hours away from her home. They immediately had a connection. They kept in touch when they were apart and she would come back to visit every 3-4 months, the connection becoming more flirtatious each time.
This went on for over a year. They hadn’t made any serious commitment, but she felt connected with him. On her most recent visit, right before she was about to leave, he kissed her very passionately in the parking lot. She left feeling elated. Now, several months later, after several texts and calls, she’s never heard back from him.
This certainly falls into the category of ‘challenges’ (emotional, mental, and maybe even spiritual). She could have let the un-knowingness of it undo her. And indeed, it required a lot of inner work, but she eventually came to a point where she could let it go and be at peace with the situation. She may never know what happened to him, but it doesn’t matter anymore. She took the energy that was going into suffering and put it into self care and inner growth.
“That’s why I come back again and again. To escape the false safety of the manufactured world for something less known. To create my own challenge, my own drama. Because on some level, the human knows it needs struggle in order to grow, and we’ll either unconsciously manifest it or we can intentionally build it into our lives.”
CDT hike Day 1 journal entry
I’ve seen this over and over again where we humans unconsciously create challenge or strife for ourselves (lookin’ at you, drama queens ;)). We claim we don’t want it in our lives, but then we keep creating the same circumstances. I think we innately know we thrive on a bit of discomfort, but when we don’t create it mindfully, it shows up in all sorts of unintended ways.
Again, it’s easiest to create this challenge in the physical realm. I believe that’s why the more sanitized our world becomes, the more we see people engaging in activities like obstacle course races, ultra marathons, and thru-hikes.
So, not only am I suggesting that we embrace the challenges that spontaneously arise, but even that we actively seek them out.
By far, the greatest benefit I receive from actively leaning in to the discomfort, over and over again, is a deeply embodied sense of resilience. The more challenging situations I face head on, and survive more-or-less intact, the less fear I have when I encounter the next obstacle.
I cannot understate how empowering it is to carry the belief, the gnosis, that “I can handle whatever comes my way. I don’t need to waste energy in a fear state because even if this sucks, I trust myself to make it out the other side even stronger than before.”
What would your life look like if you chose to lean into the discomfort, or even more boldly, if you actively sought out the discomfort? Those are the places where the real growth happens.
Embrace the discomfort. Welcome it. When you find yourself resisting it, take a moment to pause, and to shift your perception. The discomfort is a gift. It’s showing you where you have room for growth. You have the power to alchemize it. Use the energy you normally use to resist the discomfort and use it instead to create a better you.
Thank it. Learn from it. Grow from it.
Do you have an example of when embracing discomfort has ultimately made you stronger? Let me know in the comments below!
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Between June 17 and
September 23 of this year, I hiked roughly 2800 miles from Canada to Mexico,
alone, along the Continental Divide Trail.
As I’ve reintegrated
back into “real life”, I’ve been processing the many lessons that were birthed
during this time of deep solitude spent in nature. The lessons are many, and
they include both the practical (i.e. improved navigational skills) and the
conceptual (i.e. the power of surrender). If pressed to choose just one of
these lessons as being the most valuable, I’d undoubtedly say that it’s been
the increased ability to find stillness within.
What is stillness? Why
does it matter? How do you get it?
By stillness, I’m
referring to that inner state that’s available when all the mind chatter
quiets. It’s a steadiness that exists amidst any chaos that may be swirling
around me. From this state, I respond rather than react. There’s more space for
deeper reflection, gratitude, and happiness.
I believe stillness is
a natural state for us and it’s our job to tune into it. There are many ways to
do this. Being immersed in nature on a long backpacking trip is one way to get
there, and the reasons for this are many.
Firstly, engaging in challenging activities like mountain climbing, cultivates presence and stillness because they require every ounce of attention in order to avoid injury or death. When
you’re in the zone, there’s no room for mind chatter. You must be in the now.
Additionally, the solitude
found on a long walk in nature is a gateway to stillness. When we remove the
external noise, it gives us space to just be. True solitude involves not only
being alone, but also removing all external inputs, such as music or podcasts.
Furthermore, when you’re
surrounded by wilderness, it’s a reminder that the stillness present in all of
nature is also present in you. In the words of Eckart Tolle, “Seek out a tree and let it teach you stillness.” If you’ve ever sat alone in a forest, you understand this. You
can feel the stillness and you begin to embody it.
A long distance hike
also facilitates stillness if you learn to let go of expectations. For example,
if I focus solely on how far I have to walk to get to my destination (Mexico,
in this case), I’m easily frustrated because I rarely meet my own expectations
for how many miles I “should” be walking in each hour or day. Once I stopped treating the journey as a means to an end, and
became present to each step, breath, and moment, life was much more
These are just a few
of the ways long distance backpacking increased my ability to find stillness,
but it’s not the only path to reach this inner state. Fortunately, you don’t
need a 2800 mile walk in the woods to get there. Time in nature certainly
helps, but you can implement the strategies of presence, solitude, and removal
of expectations in the “real world” as well.
which can be used anywhere to tap into that place of stillness include
journaling, meditating, focusing on the breath and/or body sensations, getting
proper sleep and nutrition, reducing inputs (less phone time and reading the
news), and by looking for beauty in everything.
ability to create stillness within yourself is so valuable because it taps us
into the present moment, which is where all of life exists. The now is truly
all we have and learning how to access it through presence and stillness can
create true freedom and happiness.
Going into this adventure, I had many intentions, but developing a heightened state of presence and stillness wasn’t one of them. I’ve realized, however, that it’s likely the top reason for why I keep seeking nature immersion again and again.
If you missed part 1 of this series on Healthy Lightweight Eating for Hikers, click here. That’s where I explain WHY I choose a high fat, moderate protein, and lower carbohydrate diet on trail. Some of those reasons include a lighter pack weight, sustained energy (i.e. no bonking), less illness and injury, and fewer digestive issues.
This post will dig into the more practical side of HOW I do this. You’ll learn what this eating strategy looks like in practice, including a sample 5-day resupply guide with nutrition information. I’ll also provide a few of my staple recipes.
As mentioned in Part 1, my aim when choosing food is not just to prioritize fat, but to emphasize nutrient density and anti-inflammatory properties as well.
An important note: this is not a keto diet. I’m not opposed to keto, but for me, I find my hormone balance, thyroid health, and overall performance is better with slightly higher carbs, especially on a thru-hike. My trail diet is usually about 60-65% fat, 20% protein, and 15-20% carbs. For comparison, the typical American diet is 35% fat, 15% protein, and 50% carbs. A ketogenic diet is usually 70-75% fat, 20% protein, and 5-10% carbs. Current dietary guidelines suggest 40-60% of calories from carbs.
Also, on a side note, if you’re considering this approach, it’s wise to eat either high fat OR high carb, but not high fat AND high carb. Diets high in fat AND sugar can be strong promoters of obesity and metabolic syndrome, at least in rat models.
There’s no official ‘low carb’ designation, but it’s often suggested that below 100-150 grams per day is low carb. On a 2000 calorie per day diet, that equates to about 20-25% of calories. Since I’ll be consuming more calories, I’ll probably be around 100-200 grams per day. As you can see, that’s a big window.
Sticking to strict numbers is not important to me. I’m already OCD enough, so I try not to obsess about perfecting ratios on a spreadsheet. Instead, I prefer to focus on energy levels, sleep quality, immune health (avoiding illness and injury), feeling strong while hiking up mountains, and keeping inflammation as low as possible. To accomplish this, I try to include a lot of healthy fat and not a lot of processed or sugary items.
If you want to go deeper, this article details what I call the Thru-hiker Calorie Myth and explains what most thru-hiker diets are missing in their diet. It also reveals how paying attention to food quality can help you experience better energy, endurance, and long-term health.
Interested in a mini course that compiles all healthy lightweight eating resources in one spot? Enroll for free here.
What does Healthy High Fat look like in practice?
Again, it’s not nutritional ketosis and it’s not high fat junk foods, which are generally low in nutrients and high in unhealthy fats. Yes, it’s about the quantity of fat, but more importantly, it’s also about the quality of the fats (as well as the quality of the carbs and proteins).
In terms of quality of fat, my goal is to eat lots of ‘healthy’ fats and reduce or eliminate ‘unhealthy’ fats. I do my best to avoid all artificial trans fats, which are found most abundantly in junk foods and industrial seed oils. These are linked to chronic disease and other issues, such as cardiovascular diseases, breast cancer, shortening of pregnancy period, nervous system disorders, colon cancer, diabetes, obesity and allergy. No, thank you.
Instead, I focus on saturated and monounsaturated fats, with moderate amounts of polyunsaturated fats. First, let’s cover why fats are essential. We need fat for cell membrane integrity, transporting cholesterol, brain health, eye health, skin health, cell signaling, hormone balance, blood sugar regulation, vitamin absorption, and much more!
According to functional medicine practitioner Dr. Chris Kresser, “Current evidence does not clearly support cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of total saturated fats. Overall, there is no reason to fear saturated fat in the context of a healthy diet that also includes monounsaturated fatty acids and whole-food sources of polyunsaturated fatty acids.” Check out this article to go deeper on this.
Tips for Improving Food Quality in Your Trail Diet
In general, I focus on foods that:
are as close to their whole food form as possible.
have either no ingredient label, (e.g. almonds, pecans, plums, kale) or as short of an ingredient list as possible. This eliminates a lot of the inflammatory preservatives, food dyes, fillers, and other unnecessary ingredients in many processed products. This also gives me a higher likelihood of eating foods that have a high nutrient density, including lots of anti-inflammatory antioxidants.
are organic, when possible. This is to avoid the effects of glyphosate (e.g. Monsanto’s Roundup product) on both my body and on the environment, as it’s a probable carcinogen.
are farm-raised, pastured, grass-fed, and in the most bioavailable form, when it comes to proteins.
I also reduce how inflammatory my diet is by avoiding gluten, and by highly limiting dairy, legumes, grains, and added sugars. Most people would likely benefit from eliminating gluten and dairy. Legumes and grains may apply on a more individual basis. Some foods tend to be more inflammatory than others for almost everyone, but it’s well established that how we react to any given food is highly individual.
If you’re curious about how different foods affect you, try an elimination diet so you can create a truly customized diet. I have a free guide for that here.
Examples of Foods I Eat on Trail
Here’s a smattering of foods you’ll commonly find in my resupply boxes:
-coconut milk powder
-nut butters, such as almond butter
-nuts, such as almonds, pistachios, walnuts, hazelnuts, and macadamia nuts
-seeds, such as pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, chia seeds, and flax seeds
I like to send a lot of resupply boxes because 1) I care about what I eat, and 2) I like the efficiency of walking into town, picking up my box, and walking out of town. But, though I like planning and prepping boxes, I don’t care for dehydrating my own food.
That being the case, my ‘recipes’ and food choices tend to be ridiculously easy to prepare and assemble. Many of my foods are repetitive. This helps me be efficient with my resources (time and money). I add variety by choosing different flavors and changing up specific ingredients (e.g. creating different types of trail mix from a few staple ingredients). Additionally, I don’t carry a stove, so my food choices are suitable for cold soak and/or require no on trail prep.
Lots of fat and a bit of protein to keep energy levels steady through the morning. This is a recipe I adapted from a few different sources including Alpine Science. Full recipe on the Resource page, linked below.
Here’s a look at how this plays out on trail, with some tips I use to make things easier. Each night, after finishing dinner, I rinse out my cold-soaking jar to prepare for the next day. I pour in a little water, add my smoothie mix, and then top it off with water and put on the lid. I shake vigorously and set it aside for morning. This helps keep the powder from sticking to the sides or bottom of the jar. It also gives the chia time to absorb the water overnight and I’m ready to leave camp as soon as I wake up. I can walk or drink as soon as I start to get hungry.
This is also when I have a little bit of caffeine, usually in the form of organic instant tea. Cusa Tea is the best I’ve found.
Mid-morning I usually have a snack. I try to stick with higher fat and protein options, like trail mix, for blood sugar stability. I like Gorilly Goods for healthy trail mixes or I make my own from nuts, seeds, and (occasionally) dried fruit from the bulk food aisle.
Around mid-day, I take a break for lunch, which is usually nut butter and chips or fish and chips or occasionally hummus powder and chips. For specifics on brands, grab this free Healthy Hiker Grocery Guide.
My mid-afternoon break is when I *try* to remember to soak my dinner. Dinner is often a freeze-dried meat or dehydrated beans soaked with freeze-dried veggies. I change up different anti-inflammatory spices to change the flavor and to up the nutrient density. The longer it soaks, the better. But if I forget, which is not uncommon, I just soak it when I get to camp or realize I’m getting hungry. I wait as long as I can and/or just eat a slightly crunchy dinner. I’m disgusting, I know.
Right before I eat, I’ll add some type of healthy fat, like olive oil or coconut oil, and mix it in thoroughly. I then eat my cold mush with a spoon, and chips or a grain-free tortilla. A note on oil storage: I buy individual packets when possible to reduce messiness and spillage. I also recommend double-bagging to keep your pack safe. Better safe than sorry on this one.
Post dinner is always dark chocolate (>75% cacao), but not so much that I can’t sleep (not that this has happened… multiple times).
A Note on Nutrient Timing
I’ve talked about this elsewhere, but I tend to focus on fat and protein in the early part of the day. This is to avoid spiking insulin and getting on the energy rollercoaster of sugar spikes and crashes. My morning smoothie is mostly fat and protein which gives me steady energy through the morning. My mid-morning snack is a lower sugar bar with protein and fat, or a trail mix, or grass-fed jerky.
Lunch is usually high fat, with some protein and a bit of carbs. Around lunch or for my mid-afternoon snacks, I’ll start to have more carbs to keep my energy going through the day. This may be more chips or fruit-based bars.
Another way, I’ll use carbs strategically is for intense efforts, such as a steep and/or particularly long climb. I also wrote about this a bit in part 1.
Dinner is a mix of all macros, such as meat with veggies and a starch. The protein helps repair and rebuild muscle. The fat helps keep me warm and satiated through the night. The carbs help refuel muscle glycogen and helps me to produce serotonin, which is a precursor to melatonin, so it helps me sleep more soundly.
Another part of my strategy to optimize my health on trail is supplementation. I include electrolytes in this category. More on that in a separate post in the near future.
As mentioned, this is another evolution from how I’ve fueled on trail in the past. Food is massively important in how I manage autoimmune symptoms, continue to get after it outdoors, and take care of my overall health in my everyday life, and my goal was to carry as much of that into my trail diet as possible. I’ll follow up afterwards with what worked and what didn’t.
Here’s a full 5-day healthy lightweight backpacking meal plan. Healthy and lightweight?? Yep. That’s what I’m all about. Ramen, poptarts, and Snickers? Hell nah.
You’ll notice that each day of this meal plan is about 60% fat, 20% protein, and 20% carbohydrate. It’s based around whole foods and is designed to be stoveless (optional) and anti-inflammatory.
This healthy high fat approach helps me reduce pack weight, eliminate bonking, reduce hiker hunger, and decrease digestive issues. If you’re curious about the science and rationale of how I landed on this approach after years of experimentation, check out this post.
You’ll notice that this diet is a bit different than the standard, processed thru-hiker diet. Yup. It’s not perfect, but in general, this meal plan is designed to:
be organic/free-range/grass-fed when possible (so I can avoid the damage of glyphosate on both my body and the environment)
emphasize nutrient density
The following meal plan was pulled straight from my spreadsheet for my Continental Divide Trail resupply plan. As such, it’s based on my calorie needs and food preferences. For an idea of how many calories you need, I recommend starting with a BMR calculator, like this one, and adjusting from there based on activity level.
The 5 days shown here is a box I’m sending around mile 1200, so it’s based on ~2700 calories per day. The total weight for this 5 days of food is 6.77 pounds or about 1.35 pounds of food per day. This is significantly lower than the commonly recommended 2 pounds per day.
I also carry a few key supplements that help me stay healthy and energized on trail. Read the what and why about those here (link coming soon).
I hope this gives you some ideas for your own backpacking meal if you’re looking for something a bit less junk food-y. And yes, it’s somewhat repetitive, but I appreciate the simplicity of that. It makes shopping in bulk easier and I can add variety by rotating through different varieties/flavors. For example, with a trail mix, it might be almonds, coconut flakes, dried cranberries, and ginger powder in one box, then walnut, cacao nibs, banana chips, and cinnamon in the next box.
The chart represents all the food for 5 days and the photos show what each day would look like. Post your Q’s or comments below.
Interested in a mini course that compiles all healthy lightweight eating resources in one spot? Enroll for free here.
Carry a lighter pack, eliminate bonking, free yourself from cravings, reduce hiker hunger, and experience fewer GI issues…. Sound good? Most long distance hikers (or any endurance athlete) would say ‘heck yea’! Well, it’s possible, and it starts with what you’re putting in your food bag. Here’s how I approach eating a healthy lightweight diet on trail.
This post will explain why a healthy high fat diet is ideal for backpacking and how to do it right (i.e. without missing out on essential nutrients and compromising your health).
Personal Backpacking Nutrition Evolution
Over the course of 5000+ miles of backpacking, my nutrition strategy has evolved. Going into the AT in 2009, I had no idea how to eat for backpacking, so I started Googling. Pop-tarts, ramen, and snickers? As a lover of veggies (and feeling good), I knew that approach wasn’t going to work for me. I pieced together as healthy of a diet as I could, but it was still fairly processed and I never really felt great on it.
As a cold-soaking vegetarian on the PCT in 2014, I did a bit better. I’d learned a thing or two, both about health and how to carry that onto the trail. I focused a lot on legumes (dehydrated black beans, refried beans, and hummus), nut butters, tortillas, dried fruit, seeds, nuts, and with a handful of dried kale in my dinners. I felt better than on the AT, but by the end of the trail, my digestive system was…um, ‘off’, to put it nicely. Plus, I had a deep fatigue that had built up by the end of the hike and, it turns out, I was anemic.
So, in prepping for the CDT this year, more has changed. I no longer eat much of the gluten, industrial seed oils, grains, and even legumes that wrecked my gut in the past. I’ve also learned that I feel best when I eat a high fat, lower carbohydrate diet, rather than the traditional ‘endurance diet’ heavy in carbs.
Fortunately, that high fat diet works well for backpacking. More on that in a moment. But it’s important to note that ‘high fat’ can be done in an unhealthy way or in a healthy way. It just takes a bit more knowledge and care to do it right within the constraints inherent to backpacking.
I’ve see distance runners struggle with digestive issues as they refuel on sugary gels every 90 minutes. I’ve seen (and experienced) the bonking. And on this standard high carb, high sugar, highly processed diet, I’ve watched hikers suffer with weaker immune systems, experience insatiable hunger, carry heavier packs than necessary, and even have teeth rot from excess sugar.
And that’s just what I’ve witnessed on trail, let alone, what happens to their mental and physical health once they return home.
There’s a Better Way
That said, the focus of this article is to share why my fueling strategy has evolved to what I call Healthy High Fat. I’ll also cover how to execute that in an easy, effective, and efficient way.
Let’s state up front that what I’m NOT talking about is a zero carb diet and going into nutritional ketosis. There’s a time and place for ketosis as a therapeutic approach, but in general, we need all the macronutrients (proteins, fats, carbohydrates) to stay healthy and to perform at our best.
What I am suggesting is that there are many benefits to be had by using fat as your primary fuel, especially for endurance athletes, like long distance hikers.
I also want to be clear that this is NOT a diet, per say. Just as focusing on eating whole foods is not a diet (but a lifestyle change rather), eating for better metabolic efficiency is a practice that’s implemented over time for improved health and fitness performance. Unlike a ‘diet’, it’s not something you follow for a few weeks, then return to your former ways.
‘Why bother’, you may be thinking, ‘I like candy bars, bagels, and pasta’. I get it. I like carbs too (hi, my trail name is Salty because I eat all.the.chips.), but I like sustained energy and carrying a lighter pack even more.
Favoring a higher fat/lower carb diet and training your body to burn fat preferentially makes sense for endurance athletes for the following reasons:
*At 9 calories per gram for fat and 4 calories per gram for protein or carbs, fats are more than twice as energy dense per unit of weight than protein or carbs. We need a certain amount of protein each day to prevent muscle wasting and facilitate muscle repair. I usually shoot for about 20% of my total calories. The remaining 80% is made up of either fats or carbs, as these two macronutrients are the primary source of your cellular energy.
*Because fat is more calorically dense, you can carry the same amount of calories for less food weight than you can if you were carrying predominantly carbs.
Sustained Energy (less bonking!)
*Favoring fat over carbs leads to more sustained energy. Here’s why: Consuming carbs causes blood glucose levels to spike which causes the pancreas to release insulin to shuttle glucose into cells, which then causes blood sugar to quickly drop, and you bonk, hit the wall, get cranky or tired, and crave another hit of sugar.
*As described earlier, fat and protein are slower burning fuels than sugar. They are absorbed more slowly and do not cause the same roller-coaster spike and crash of sugar.
*While I do eat slightly more calories on a long hike than in my everyday (significantly more sedentary) life, I generally don’t experience the extreme hiker hunger which my companions describe. I believe the difference is that I eat mostly whole foods as opposed to ultra-processed, low fiber, high sugar foods.
*Studies have indicated a significant decrease in hunger on a high nutrient diet when compared with a low nutrient diet. In an attempt to make up for nutrient deficiencies, the body reaches for more and more food despite consuming sufficient calories. Many hikers report needing 5000-6000 calories per day. I generally feel good, experience sustained energy, and little weight loss at 3000-3500 calories per day, even on a thru-hike. Of course it depends on body size, but I believe a reason many hikers consume so much is because their food choices are low in nutrients and fiber.
Less GI Distress
*Most hikers and long distance runners I know talk a lot about poop and farts. It’s not uncommon for endurance athletes to experience frequent gas, bloating, diarrhea, and nausea. This is especially true during challenging efforts, like a race or a particularly hard day on trail. This makes sense as blood is shunted away from your GI tract to fuel muscles. There is also the mechanical pounding of hiking/running and the production of stress hormones that impair digestion during hard efforts.
*While on the one hand, because fat and protein are slow absorbing fuels, high fat or high protein or large volumes of food in general will impair performance if eaten right before a hard effort. However, during a longer, less intense effort (like hiking at a steady pace all day), fueling on fat can reduce digestive distress because you can eat less frequently, which means less work for your digestive system.
*Excessive sugar can set off an inflammatory cascade that suppresses the immune system. Your body is already under a great deal of physical stress on a long hike. Stressing it out more by forcing it to subsist on fare that is high in sugar and low in stress-fighting nutrients sets you up for issues. It’s not uncommon to see hikers catching colds and experiencing injury more often on trail. This may be due to weakened immunity.
*The reduction in systemic inflammation that can result from eating less processed foods, and focusing instead on balancing blood sugar, is the main driver of my interest in high fat/lower carb eating. I balance blood sugar by focusing on plenty of fiber, fat, and protein in each meal or snack. Due to my history with autoimmune thyroid issues, reducing inflammation is critical, especially on trail.
Fat is Ideal for Low to Moderate Efforts
*Fat is an ideal fuel for low to moderate efforts, like hiking all day. When you train at a low intensity, you keep your heart rate lower, in the aerobic zone, where fat is used as the primary fuel. The more you train at low intensities, the more efficient your body becomes at converting fat to fuel. This article and this article explain this concept well, as does Mark Sisson’s Primal Endurance.
*On the other hand, all-out efforts (like sprints) are a more glycogen-dependent activity. This is where carbs can come in handy. It’s why I often eat a bit more carbs when I have a big climb ahead of me and need quick-burning fuel for my muscles. Essentially, I try to use carbs strategically.
Understanding Metabolic Efficiency
What this all comes down to is increasing metabolic efficiency (ME). ME refers to how efficiently the body uses its internal stores of fats and carbohydrates. The goal of ME training is to improve health and performance. This concept was established by Sports Dietician Bob Seehobar. Find the details here.
Through ME training, the body can be taught to favor burning fat over carbs. Increasing ME speaks to your ability to burn more fat versus carbs at the same intensity. As mentioned, the average person has approximately 1,400 – 2,000 calories worth of carbohydrate stored in their body and 50,000 – 80,000 calories stored as fat. Training your body to burn more fat spares it’s limited glycogen (carbohydrate) stores.
According to Seehobar’s website, the benefits of improved metabolic efficiency include 1) decreased body weight, 2) decreased body fat, 3) improved and sustained energy levels and mental alertness throughout the day, 4) improved recovery, 5) improved cognitive function, 6) improved power to weight ratio, 7) improved running velocity, and 8) better sleep.
ME can be tested through a machine that measures the oxygen you inhale and the carbon dioxide that you exhale while exercising on a treadmill or cycling ergometer. By plugging these numbers into an algorithm, one can determine the amount of carbs versus fat they burn at any given intensity.
Generally, as you increase the intensity you shift from burning more fat and less carbs to burning more carbs and less fat. For an example of what this looks like, check out this post by the highly accomplished long distance backpacker and runner Andrew Skurka.
While there is a genetic component to how good of a ‘fat-burner’ you are, it’s something that’s highly trainable.
According to Seehobar, “The majority of improving metabolic efficiency lies in daily nutrition changes and the ability to control and optimize blood sugar through eating proper amounts of protein, fat, and fiber, while accounting for the proper nutrition periodization to support athletes in different training cycles.”
Optimizing blood sugar, or glycemic variability, is something I talk about a lot. It refers to how much our blood sugar shifts throughout the day. According to health guru, endurance athlete, and personal trainer Ben Greenfield, “when it comes to your health, (glycemic variability) is, in my opinion, a more important variable to consider than cholesterol, vitamin D, minerals, telomere length, cortisol, testosterone or just about any biomarker one could ever measure (except, perhaps, inflammation, which I would rank right up there with glycemic variability).”
Reducing glycemic variability is critical to the overall picture of health, including reducing risk for metabolic syndrome, which predisposes you to stroke, cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes and other chronic health conditions.
As Seehobar states, the key to optimizing blood sugar is to include protein, fat, and fiber with everything you eat. Reducing the overall amount of carbs consumed is also essential, as when you limit incoming glucose, your body will rely on stored body fat for energy.
As mentioned, you don’t need to go extremely low in carbs to see benefits, and in fact, too little carbs can cause issues, such as hypothyroidism. Further, extreme restriction can lead to binge and purge cycles.
It’s difficult to give a blanket recommendation as everyone’s carb requirements are different due to gender, fitness level, body size, and metabolic history. Essentially, consuming carbs (or even too much protein) tells your body to release insulin. Insulin shuts down fat burning in favor of carb metabolism.
How to Do High Fat Healthy
So, fill up on pork rinds and other highly processed fatty junk food? Nope. Sorry. That’s where most folks miss seeing the whole message, and that approach will only lead you down the path of chronic health conditions like diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease.
As I mentioned, there is a healthy way and an unhealthy way to do high fat. My approach is about HEALTHY High Fat. That means we focus on high fat, moderate protein, and lower carb, all while prioritizing nutrient density.
What does this actually look like in practice? That’s what we’ll cover in part 2.
Interested in a mini course that compiles all healthy lightweight eating resources in one spot? Enroll for free here.
This post was originally written for Wishgarden Herbs.
How do you prepare for a 3000-mile hike? It’s a monstrous endeavor, indeed, and after nearly 5000 miles of backpacking, I’ve learned that as much goes into the preparation as the execution.
The scope of my upcoming adventure is to hike the length of the continental divide from Canada to Mexico. Depending on the route I take, this will entail walking 2800-3000 miles of continuous foot steps, along the Continental Divide Trail. Commonly referred to as a ‘thru-hike’, I’ll be averaging 30-35 miles per day in order to complete the trail in one season.
Many hikers spend far too much time obsessing over gear, food, weather and other minutiae. While those things have their importance, it’s physical preparation and mindset that result in a successful journey.
To avoid injury and illness, it’s wise to optimize your health before hitting the trail. Before a long hike, I put additional effort into eating a nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory diet and getting plenty of sleep. This is always important, of course, but the goal is to optimize immune health and resiliency before enduring the physical stress of a long hike.
Building miles slowly is essential to a smooth transition to hiking for 10-12 hours per day. There’s no preparation that compares to putting on a pack and walking all day, but it’s hard to find time for that. Activities like strength training and trail running help build muscle and condition the cardiovascular system in less time.
I’ve seen so many people leave the trail from illness and injury that I created the Adventure Ready online course to help hikers hit the trail feeling healthy and prepared for what’s to come. We cover mindset, diet, gut health, sleep, training, sleep, and stress management.
As critical as the physical preparation is, it’s often said that a thru-hike is 90% mental. Mastering mindset starts with committing to myself to do everything in my power to complete my hike. To stay motivated over the long haul, I like to have a clear sense of why I’m out there. If I know my why, then when the going gets tough (and it will), I find reserves of energy and perseverance I didn’t even know I had.
I find it’s also helpful to anticipate challenges and how I’ll work through them. I know that I’ll miss my loved ones, be physically & emotionally uncomfortable (frequently), things won’t work out as planned, and I’ll be alone a lot. It’s easier to navigate these challenges when I’ve prepared myself mentally. Additionally, I know I’m bound to have a transformative experience.
Connecting with Nature
Hiking a long trail allows me to reach more remote areas which few others take the time to get to. This allows for more intimate connections with the wildlife, which can be both magical and frightening.
The most common question I get, besides “Do you carry a gun” (the answer is no), is “Why?”. Why put your life on hold for 4 months? Why walk across the country, putting your mind and body through so much?
I have many reasons, but perhaps the most compelling is the depth of connection I feel with nature during an experience of total immersion. For me, it takes a week or so of being out, but I can physically feel my body unwinding. The compulsive thought loops of ‘what do I need to be doing right now?’ fall away. I exhale deeply, knowing the only thing I need to do is walk.
The reduction in external input when I’m deep in the wilderness helps me to notice more of what’s around me. Instead of the constant distraction of my own thoughts, I pay more attention to the surroundings. I notice the changing landscape and the weather patterns because they directly impact my experience. I feel the pressure changes of a storm coming before I even see it.
There is space to just be. My mind needs that openness, that white space. I am never more creative than I am while on a long distance hike. I become the truest version of myself. I see this in others as well. They tap into their deepest desires and potential. Creative projects and business ideas are born.
On a 3000 mile walk, I find a different level of presence than I experience in my ‘everyday life’ and that’s what keeps me coming back for more every summer.
If you’re interested in following the adventure or preparing for your own long adventure, I’ll be logging my progress on Instagram (@katiegerber) and on my website.
Food is the through line for me. The growing, the preparing, the consuming, the sharing, and the downstream effects of those things–both on my own health, the health of others, and the health of our environment.
Food is, and always has been, a central part of my life, whether I wanted it to be or not. I write about it, I talk about it, I coach about it. I’ve been on and off of diets (though I never admitted to myself that my strict food rules were diets). I grew up in farm country and worked summer jobs at an agricultural research center. I operated an organic market garden for a season. I worked as a pastry chef, and in restaurants, preparing food for a living. I built wood-fired ovens and hosted community dinners. I’ve always loved the practice of growing food. Hands in the Earth: planting, tending, harvesting. The beauty of simply prepared real food captivates not just my stomach, but my eyes, my mind, and my soul.
But the things is, for most of my life, my relationship with food has been far from serene and charmed. I share this story because food is central life, and the way we relate to food matters. Because how we relate to food is, in many ways, how we relate to all aspects of our lives. Whether that’s from a place of ease, flow, and joy, or from a place of shame, guilt, and restriction.
Your relationship to food, and in turn, to your body, can impact your:
*peace of mind
*ability to carry out your work in this world
*overall quality of life
Whether we acknowledge it or not, we all have a relationship to food. And, outside of the eating disorder community, I don’t think the impact of our day-to-day relationship with food is acknowledged enough. Full blown eating disorders are destructive, to say the least, but I also want to address the more subtle, nuanced feelings and behaviors around food that shape our lives every single day.
By sharing my story, perhaps you can connect the pieces of your own story. If your relationship with food has ever felt tumultuous (especially in your own mind), know that you’re not alone.
If you have no idea what I mean and you’ve never struggled with food, this post may not resonate. And if you’re here looking for strategies on how to eat and train, hang tight, there will be posts on that again soon. But that’s not the focus of this one.
How we relate to food is a topic that I haven’t written on much, but it’s so central to not just our health and how we perform (which is mostly what I write about), but to our entire lives. You can’t talk about health, performance, and diet without talking about our psychology around food.
I’ve avoided discussing it until now because, honestly, it’s something I struggled with for so long and I carried a lot of shame around the fact that it was a thing for me. But I believe shining light on something dissolves the shame (or it helps, at least). I also delayed writing this because my story is an evolving one. I didn’t feel like I was ‘there’ yet. ‘There’ being… completely neurosis-free eating behaviors and body love perfection? I’m not sure what I imagined the final destination to be. I just knew I wasn’t there. Sounds like the familiar trap of perfectionism.
However, I believe our experiences are what we have to offer. Whether or not we fully see their value, it can be helpful to share those experiences, acknowledging that we’re a work in progress. There is no such thing as perfect. After all, I’m leaps and bounds beyond where I used to be when nearly every bit of my mental energy centered around food: planning, calculating, weighing, measuring, controlling. I may not be neurosis-free, but I’ve learned a few things since then.
Ultimately, changing how I relate to food changed everything. Yes, in terms of my health, but also in terms of my creativity, mood, peace of mind, relationships, presence, and overall quality of life. And if this is an area where you’ve struggled, hopefully connecting these pieces can improve every aspect of your life as well. It may sound like a big claim, but bringing awareness to your relationship with food can be more transformative than any diet, exercise regime, or supplement could ever be.
Some days, I wake up shocked that I voluntarily choose to speak to people about food for a living. I was always the person who avoided talking about food and body image to others. I hated when people gave or solicited food/diet/exercise advice. I hated when coaches, teachers, family, and friends would comment on my body. It didn’t matter if the comments were ‘positive’ or ‘negative’. I hated that they noticed that I had a body and that they noticed that it had changed. I think I just hated that I even had a body. I’ve never lived in anything other than a female body, so I can’t say for sure, but I think being a woman and an athlete made this journey even more challenging as I took on everyone else’s expectations about what that body ‘should’ be.
Even more surprising than this being my chosen path is the fact that I actually love working with others around food and health. It’s challenging on every level, but it’s also incredibly rewarding to show up for others compassionately and empathetically as they navigate this intense and complicated space.
It may seem trite, but I believe our greatest personal struggles can serve as a jumping off point for the work we do in the world. Our challenges can be our greatest gifts if we choose for them to be. We can excavate the lessons and share them, if for nothing else than to let at least one other human know ‘I see you and you’re not alone in your suffering’.
In many ways, this feels like a tired story–one which everyone has their own version of. And it could’ve gotten much worse, so it almost doesn’t feel worth sharing. In fact, I know many women for whom it did get much worse. But it shaped who I am, so it’s worth giving voice to it.
There isn’t a single moment that defines this story, but rather a collection of memories. I remember that I learned to fear food early on. It was something to be cautious of. The body was not something to revel in, but something to control. It’s animal impulses were to be suppressed not just in the mind, but in the body as well, through denial, diet, and workouts. Lingering remnants of puritan roots.
One early memory comes from third grade, when a male classmate told me I had a ‘bubble butt’. Thus was born the awareness that I had a body and that this body was different than other bodies. Why, of all the memories, do I still remember that one? I was never overweight, but my build was always athletic and curvy. I also remember seeing my mother judging her own body in the mirror, fighting her appetite, and being compulsive about exercise. She was fighting her own battle and, of course, had no idea that I was noticing and absorbing it all.
And then there was athletics, when I became even more aware of my body and how it was changing. On the one hand, it was empowering to feel my own strength, but participating in sports also invited comparison and judgment. Being forced to march in parades in a skimpy majorette uniform. Track, swimming, and cross country practices and being valued on how my body performed. My shoulders growing too big for my sweaters during swim season. The comments of a male cross country coach after a summer of over-exercising and under-eating: “Now you’re starting to look like a real long distance runner”. What does that mean? What was I before? I wondered.
Then there was the concern/criticism/jealousy (depending on the source) of coaches, friends, and family upon returning from my freshman year of college 20 pounds lighter than when I’d left. I hated the attention on my body, no matter it’s size. No matter if it was criticism or praise.
This is not a pity story. It’s simply the events that I remember shaping the way I viewed myself and my body, and how that then impacted my relationship to food. We all have these stories. During that time, sadly, the primary purpose of food and exercise for me was to experience a sense of control. That view now feels so shallow to me because food, movement, and the body are all portals to so much more.
This path naturally led to an obsession with health. I read every nutrition magazine and book I could get my hands on. I experimented on myself, trying to figure out the secrets, the one right way to keep the unruly body in check. Like a game-show contestant, I knew the calorie count of every food by memory. I tracked and logged.
Looking back, I’m saddened by how much time and energy I wasted thinking about food, calories, exercise, and my body. So much time and energy that could’ve gone into creation, self-expression, learning, connecting, and actually living.
There were so many phases and rules, and it changed by the month. Only skim milk, never whole. Fruit is the only ‘safe’ dessert. Eat meal bars for exact calorie counts. No eating until your stomach growls. Don’t eat meat or dairy. Avoid social events because you don’t know what food will be there or how it was prepared. So. Much. Obsessiveness.
But I never did land on the ‘one thing’ or actually figure ‘it’ out. There was always a new article telling me to do the opposite of what I’d been doing. I tried and I tried. I chased perfection with my diet. I followed all my food rules. I never missed a day of working out. And no matter how my body changed, it never became ‘perfect’ in my eyes. So I beat myself up mentally and became even more disciplined.
In college, I was under more pressure than ever (at least in my own mind). Advanced classes, sports teams, multiple jobs, new peers, dorm rooms, and dining halls. All far from everything and everyone that was familiar and comfortable to me. Of course I grasped for control. The compulsive exercising and undereating became extreme.
After a year or so of anorexia, I was broken. My body was screaming for nourishment and thus came the binges. First it was only rarely. Then it was happening more often. Then it was daily. All the things I’d restricted. I could no longer out-exercise the binges, so then came the purging. And the bulimia. The shame. The secrecy. I couldn’t believe what I was doing, who I had become. A shell of my true self. I was living in a self-created hell of shame and destructive behaviors.
Every aspect of my life suffered as all my thoughts revolved around food and exercise, and how messed up my life had become. Relationships fell away. Money was wasted. I lied to people I loved. I avoided social functions. I wasn’t truly engaged in anything I was doing.
Finding My Way Out
This was controlling my entire life in a way I could’ve never imagined if I weren’t living it.
The cycles of binging and purging, the overindulgence and the restriction, were not limited to food. It affected how I was expressing myself (or lack thereof) in every part of my life. I was ruled by perfectionism, control, and fear. My body couldn’t be trusted to know what it needed. If I just ate when and what I wanted, who knows what might happen? If I had to miss a day of exercise, I was grumpy and angry. My mindset reflected a deeply distrustful relationship to myself, my body, and the world.
Just as there was no one incident that led me into this hole, there was no one moment that pulled me out of it. It’s been a long journey and it’s an ongoing one. And that’s what I want to emphasize: it’s a process. Just as I slowly dug myself into the hole, finding my way out would take time and reprogramming as well.
It involved therapy, building a metaphorical toolbox of tools to deal with challenges, developing emotional resilience, and trusting (my body, my cravings, other people, the world). I worked on incorporating more joy into my life, connecting with a healthy social circle, and learning to see my body for the powerful force that it is. Finding my way out also included being vigilant about what I was feeding my mind, and examining the expectations I was setting for myself. It involved learning grace and learning to hold it ALL lightly.
Part of digging out of the hole of restriction and fear was understanding what these behaviors were doing for me. It’s different for everyone, but personally, these behaviors served as a sense of control when everything else in life felt like too much. So I learned how to bear discomfort.
Eventually, I became more alive, more myself. I learned to spot those Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs) and to squash them, rather than letting them colonize my brain as I had before. I put more energy into relationships and laughing with people I love. I forgave myself for not being perfect.
In fact, I learned to laugh at the idea of perfection and embrace the beautiful flaws of being human. Indeed, it’s the ‘imperfections’ of others that make me adore them the most. Couldn’t I learn to turn that mindset inward?
Feeding myself and others became an expression of love and creativity. I attuned to my pleasures, my desires, and the way that life was seeking to move through me. I sought to release all the little knots in my heart and the ways I was resisting life.
I began to take immense pleasure in what my body could do. Using my strength and endurance to move through the mountains has been the most empowering, transformative force for changing how I relate to body. I noticed that I shifted from wanting to feel SMALL to wanting to feel STRONG. To feel the power in my legs as I glide up a mountain, to feel my lungs pound in my chest as I run along the trail, to truly inhabit my animal body, that is what lights me up now. The size of my thighs doesn’t cross my mind when I’m out in nature experiencing life.
Why Real Food is Always the Starting Point
But, before any of that, it started with letting go of ALL of the food rules and everything I thought I knew. The only guideline I followed was to just eat real food and listen to my body’s feedback.
When I focused on whole foods instead of ‘diet’ foods (like meal replacement shakes/bars and other highly processed items), everything became easier. I learned that when I ate whole foods containing fat, fiber, protein and micronutrients, that my body regulated it’s hunger levels. I realized that fat doesn’t make you fat.
Sure, it took time and practice, but eventually I could hear the feedback my body was providing. It was telling me how much food I needed. I could feel which foods were nourishing me and which I was better off avoiding for now. I found freedom from the diet mindset through real, as-close-to-nature-as-possible, foods.
It’s true that there are certain foods I tend to avoid, but not because those foods are ‘bad’, but because I feel better without them in my diet. It’s different to come from a place of love than a place of punishment. Unfortunately, most women I know tend to be really good at denying their bodies cravings and punishing themselves through restriction.
Whereas before my ‘food rules’ came from a place of fear and self-hate, any ‘rules’ I follow now come from self-love and a place of wanting to feel my absolute best. I want to be able to show up for myself and for those I care about. I want to be of service and to have all my energy available to do my best work in this world. I want to have my energy freed up to be present to the life unfolding around me.
Finding Food Freedom for Yourself
That’s why I don’t ascribe to one ‘perfect diet’ and why I don’t encourage clients to follow specific diets either. Maintaining an outlook of ongoing learning and adaptability to my body’s feedback is why it wasn’t as difficult as I expected to leave 15 years of identifying as a vegetarian to becoming a conscious omnivore. We have a tendency to think in ideals with diet and, for some, to make it an identity. But that will only limit our freedom and growth.
There are no rules, only choices. Rules are restrictive and prevent you from tuning in and listening to what works for YOUR body. Real health comes from real food and learning how to figure out what works for your body. And learning how to listen to your body is harder than following a set of rules. We want a pill, a prescription, a quick fix. The one perfect diet. But the real work of long term health requires more introspection than that.
There can’t be one simple set of rules because everyone needs something different and that changes throughout their lives. Following what works for someone else while tuning out our own bodies can have real impacts on our health and hormones. Ever had the experience of trying to eat the same diet that ‘works’ for your mom/friend/sister/boyfriend and find it either does not for you, or worse, makes you feel awful?
Our world if full of eye-catching headlines and snappy sound bites telling us what to eat and how to exercise. There’s so much conflicting information out there, with new studies coming out daily. It’s so.damn.overwhelming. No wonder most people are confused about what to eat.
Let go of seeking the perfect diet. Remember that it’s going to be different for everyone, but it will always start with just eating real food. That will never change based on new studies or fads.
It’s time to make peace with food and with our bodies instead of letting how ‘perfectly’ or not perfectly you think you’re eating control your mind, your self-worth, your confidence, your energy, your mood, and your quality of life.
We make it so much harder than it needs to be. And all of the rules and guilt keep us in fear, living a limited life and a limited version of ourselves. And this is not the life I want for myself or for you.
Your relationship to food is central to how you show up in every aspect of your life.
So, what is your relationship to food? Stop distracting yourself long enough to be honest. Because it matters. And it starts with awareness. Guilt? Shame?Joy? Make room for all of it. Because your relationship to food is your relationship to life.
Focus on the Journey (There is no destination.)
As I mentioned, this process is a journey. Give yourself some grace.
Years after I thought I’d healed myself, I was going through a particularly tough spot in life. I’d left a relationship, a business, a career, a home, and a community. I was on entirely new and shaky ground. Everything about my identity was in flux. Without even realizing what was happening, those old behaviors crept back in.
It wasn’t easy to navigate and I certainly stumbled, but I was able to approach it with more wisdom having walked that path before. It took time for me to get a handle on it, but the thing that actually helped was not fighting what was happening, but instead revisiting many of the tools that pulled me out of my mess before. Returning to the basics.
It’s a journey and a practice. There is no destination.
It all starts with real food. Food is a source of nourishment, joy, beauty, sustenance, and fuel for your adventures. It’s not something to fear. It’s can be a connection to others, to culture, to the past. It’s SO. Much. More. than calories, macronutrients, or a way to control life.
Good food is good for the planet.
Nourished humans can live their best lives: physically, emotionally, and spiritually. They can live on purpose.
Your body and food are vehicles for pleasure. Whether that means a perfect Greek meal made by your nanna or a lung-busting run up the side of a mountain (type 2 fun), enjoy this animal body while you have one because, as we all know, our time here is short.
That wraps up part 1 on this topic. In part 2, I’ll explore how all of this ties into how you eat on trail, or on any other adventure for that matter.
In the meantime, comment below. Did this resonate with you? Can you relate?
If you’ve spent any amount of time in proximity to the long distance hiking community, you’re likely aware that food is a frequently discussed topic. What will I pack in my resupply box? When is my next snack break? What will I eat in town? Food, food, food…and rightfully so, as thru-hikers burn through 3,000-6,000+ calories per day.
It won’t take long and you’ll notice a common mentality surface: hikers need a lot of calories and the source of those calories doesn’t matter. In fact, some even claim that you need junk food to fuel a long distance hike because it’s assumed to be calorie-rich. This sole focus on calories is the thru-hiker calorie myth.
I call B.S. You can finish a hike relying solely on processed carbs. I’ve seen hundreds of hikers do it, but it’s certainly not necessary, and you’ll likely plow through your body’s reserves and compromise performance in the process. If the junk food diet approach doesn’t interest you for whatever reason (i.e. long-term health, performance optimization, environmental impact, dietary restrictions), rest-assured that there are feasible alternatives.
While the body can and will use any source of energy you give them, I’d submit that there are definite advantages to fueling on whole foods and significant disadvantages to relying solely on junk food.
What is the ‘thru-hiker diet’?
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 true impact of fueling on these foods, and the alternatives which exist.
Why Not Maximize Performance, Health, and Enjoyment?
It takes a lot of effort and sacrifice to bring a long distance hike to life. Why just survive out there when you could feel truly awesome? It’s simply a matter of tweaking something you’re already doing: eating.
The intention of this post is not to impose guilt or even to persuade you to eat a certain way. Rather, the intention is to provide a resource for those seeking an alternative to the thru-hiker junk food paradigm (as I was). On a deeper level, the intention is to provide a beacon of truth in a very crowded landscape of marketers who are trying to sell you their products. It’s to help you develop your own compass, so you can take control of your health (because no one else is going to do that for you).
So, what are the downsides to fueling on junk food? What does the science say? What’s the alternative?
First, Some Definitions
When I refer to ‘junk food’, I’m referring to highly processed, packaged foods. They are often high in refined sugars and have lengthy ingredient lists containing additives, preservatives, food dyes, and artificial ingredients. Generally, they’re high in calories and low in nutritional value.
‘Whole foods’, on the other hand, are unprocessed, unadulterated, and generally quite close to the form in which you’d find them in nature. They are free of artificial ingredients and additives, and if they’re in a package at all, the ingredient list is short and consists of recognizable ingredients.
Calories matter, but that’s not all you need.
When you’re moving for 10+ hours per day, the obsession with calories is understandable. And while junk food certainly provides calories (though not always as much many assume), the primary downside is that it lacks the nutrients that will keep your body functioning optimally during rigorous physical demands.
I often hear hikers say, ‘I’m losing weight eating this way. How can I be unhealthy?’. Frankly, on trail or off, the focus on weight in the overall picture of health is myopic. Energy balance is important, but your food should do more than just provide calories.
When your muscles are strained as they are during a long distance hike, vitamin and mineral stores are depleted more quickly than when sedentary. These micronutrients are essential for athletes because they contribute to energy metabolism, amino acid synthesis, red blood cell synthesis, and overall reduction of inflammation (which increases during exercise). The increased nutrient turnover in athletes leads to an increased dietary requirement. Where are these micronutrients found most abundantly? Whole foods (especially fruits and veggies).
Fitness ≠ Health
It’s commonly assumed that because thru-hikers are fit that they are healthy. However, you can absolutely be fit, but unhealthy. In a 2016 review in Sports Med-Open, the authors clarify the difference between fitness and overall health.
Fitness is the ability to perform a given exercise. Health is an overall state of well-being where physiological systems are operating optimally. The general term given to unhealthy athletes is overtraining syndrome, and the authors argue that the primary drivers of this are “high training intensity and the modern-day highly processed, high glycemic diet. Both factors elicit a sympathetic response through the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, in turn driving systemic reactive oxygen species production, inflammation, and a metabolic substrate imbalance towards carbohydrate and away from fat oxidation, manifesting in an array of symptoms often labeled as the overtraining syndrome.”
The Dangers of a Junk Food Diet
Inflammation and Impaired Long-term Health
What does inflammation mean for the hiker? When inflammation is high and persistent, it affects all body systems. In the short term, this means suboptimal performance,increased muscle soreness, longer recovery times, slower wound healing, increased susceptibility to illness, and less mental acuity. Not good when you’re hiking a marathon a day for 5 months. In the long term, chronic inflammation increases your risk for heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and obesity.
Highly refined vegetable oils as well as sugar, both found abundantly in junk foods, provide the raw materials for inflammation in the body. Furthermore, it has been demonstrated that in healthy populations, reliance on fast foods and sugars is positively correlated with symptoms of metabolic syndrome. While this may not manifest during a hike, it’s still something to consider as you choose your food for a multi-month thru-hike.
Increased Illness, Slower Healing, and Slower Recovery
You can decrease the likelihood of ending your hike early by changing what’s in your food bag. The full body inflammation caused by excess intake of ultra-processed foods increases susceptibility to injury and illness. In 2017, injury and illness accounted for 17% of AT hikers quitting their thru-hike attempt.
Chronic inflammation also suppresses your immune system, thereby causing slower wound healing and slower recovery. 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.
Impaired Gut Health & Intestinal Permeability
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 and contribute to intestinal permeability. This is particularly true when exposure is chronic.
It’s helpful to remember that your liver has to process everything that you put into the body. Think of it like a water filter. Think about what happens when you filter from a dirty cow tank, for instance.
Decreased 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. And what you eat directly affects your brain. Steady blood sugar helps you make better decisions and stay motivated over the long haul. Eating a nutrient-dense diet also helps with navigation and making smart decisions in the backcountry.
Energy Imbalance & Bonking: One ticket for the energy roller coaster, please.
Another aspect of relying on processed carbs all day is the effect on your energy. When you eat food, your blood sugar levels rise, and your pancreas releases insulin to shuttle glucose from the bloodstream into cells. This is a good thing. It gives you energy. However, how quickly your blood sugar rises and falls depends on the source of the energy. Refined carbs alone will cause a rapid spike and then crash in blood sugar. You’ll crave more sugar and start the cycle over. This is the energy roller coaster and once you’re on it, it’s hard to get off. More complex carbs, on the other hand, along with eating healthy fat, fiber, or protein with meals and snacks will slow down the response and provide more sustained and lasting energy.
Think about tending a fire. You need the kindling for a quick burning fuel source and you need logs for a long sustained burn, so you’re not constantly feeding the fire with kindling. Carbs are the kindling and can be great for quick energy, but pair them with fats and protein for more sustained energy.
When you rely solely on simple sugar all day, you tend to have a lot of energy spikes and crashes. Completing a long hike requires long days. The key to having sustained energy and hiking big miles is avoiding the spikes and crashes by steering clear of highly-refined, processed foods.
Increased Hunger & Increased Pack Weight
Consuming foods devoid of nutrients leaves the body unsatisfied, even when a large amount of calories have been consumed. This leads to endless hunger and results in buying and carrying more food than you may actually need. A 2019 study indicated that people eat more on an ultra-processed diet than on a whole foods diet. Just by cutting out the processed foods, your hunger will naturally regulate itself. Studies also suggest that a high micronutrient diet (vs. a low micronutrient, but high calorie diet) can not only help you experience less hunger, but can make the hunger symptoms more tolerable. While many hikers aren’t trying to lose weight intentionally, most would agree that it’d be nice to not constantly feel ravenous.
Ultimately, when you’re hungrier, you eat more. When you have to eat more, you have to buy more and carry more, which obviously results in more money spent and a heavier pack. A heavier pack not only decreases enjoyment, but can lead to increased wear and tear on the body, and ultimately to injury. Of course, there’s the very real fact that your body is working hard and needs a lot of calories, but most hikers I know who’ve shifted to more whole foods don’t seem to have the same level of hiker hunger as those eating only processed foods.
Creation of Unhealthy Habits
Repetitive behaviours turn into habits in as little as 3 weeks. When you’ve been training your body for months to eat and crave junk food, it can be difficult to shift to healthier patterns once you return home. The consequences on your body and mind are real. It may seem like no big deal at the onset, but most of us know how difficult it can be to retrain ourselves and form healthy habits.
Post-trail Weight Gain & A Messed-Up Relationship with Food
An infrequently discussed topic in the hiking community is adjusting to life post-trail, especially when it comes to eating and health. Hikers may lose weight in the short term, but over the course of a few years, a highly processed diet contributes to obesity and metabolic syndrome (two of the mostly costly worldwide epidemics), and mounting evidence suggests that these foods also play a part in immune-mediated metabolic dysregulation. This is relevant for the hiker who is taxing her system on trail and needs a healthy immune system to remain strong and resilient, both in the short and the long term.
It’s not uncommon to hear hikers joke about having two wardrobes: one for hiking season and one for non-hiking season. Obviously there’s a massive decrease in physical activity which can lead to rapid weight gain if one doesn’t regulate food intake. Consider that it’s easier to regulate food intake when 1) you’re eating whole foods (as cited above) and 2) your taste buds haven’t been trained to crave highly processed foods.
It’s rarely discussed, but when hikers return home and attempt to shift their diet, it can also be emotionally challenging. Cycles of binging and then restriction are not uncommon and are worsened by cravings for highly palatable, ultra-processed foods. This can not only lead to a disturbed relationship with food, but can contribute to the post-trail depression many experience.
Increased Incidence of Cardiovascular Disease, Autoimmune Conditions, and Allergies
We’ve already covered the increased risk of metabolic syndrome from eating a processed diet over the long term. A junk food diet is more likely to result in cardiovascular disease and autoimmune conditions that will affect you long after you’re off the trail. Processed foods are also more likely to cause allergies.
Looking at the Bigger Picture
We evolved with whole foods and we’re only beginning to understand the health implications of the alterations being made to foods, such as genetic engineering, pesticide residues, and the addition of preservatives, food colorings, synthetic chemicals, and more.
As a reminder, highly processed foods were not created the way they are for your health. They were created to be cheap for the companies to make, to have a long shelf life, and to make you eat more. You’re literally up against billions of dollars of research and food scientists focusing solely on those outcomes. When reading headlines or even when looking at the literature, it’s helpful to look at who sponsored the study and how it was conducted.
For example, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association), the world’s largest association of nutrition professionals, was funded by Coca-cola until 2015, and many of their ‘Fact Sheets’ were written by industry sponsors. This is the organization Registered Dieticians (RDs) are credentialed through. This is not at all to imply that there are no ethical dieticians, but rather to suggest that you might consider looking into the research for yourself. Look at who is funding that study telling you that candy bars are healthy.
Again, it’s not about moralizing food and saying that some are ‘good’ and some are ‘bad’. But it is true that some foods contribute to overall health, while others are more likely to cause your health to deteriorate. Be informed.
Finally, 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.
What does the grandfather of long distance hiking have to say? (#whatwouldraydo?)
Interestingly, in Beyond Backpacking, originally published in 1992, author Ray Jardine suggests that in regards to backpacking food we “consider not only the whims of our taste buds but the physiological need of our bodies and brains… If our journeys degenerate into battles, in terms of lost energy and mental buoyancy, then I think those battles are usually won or lost in the grocery stores, rather than on the trails”.
Jardine goes on to point out how to recognize junk food in its various forms and reveals how not all “food” is food. He states that “poorly nourished hikers often find themselves low on energy and endurance. They usually assume that hiking is inherently tiring, and that the steepness and length of the trail is to blame for their weariness. Malnutrition can also manifest in the hiker’s mental outlook.”
Jardine points out the dangers of nutrient poor foods and food additives. He even covers the ‘calorie myth’, stating “sugars are high in calories but they do not provide us with usable energy. Nor do they encourage recuperation from strenuous exercise, cleanse our muscles of their byproducts, help repair micro-damaged muscles fibers, or help strengthen our muscles and increase their stamina. Sugars are also quite useless at promoting mental acuity.”
Somehow, the junk food diet became the norm in thru-hiker culture, which seems odd, really. In what other realm do you see athletes pushing to the edge of their physical limits by fueling on the worst foods they can find?
Fueling for energy, endurance, and overall health does not have to difficult or expensive as many hikers believe. At a very basic level, just do your best to eat real food. Yes, food manufacturers have made it more difficult to do this. However, with a few simple tips (see below) and a bit of practice, you’ll soon be a pro, reaping the benefits of increased energy, endurance, mental acuity, and long term health.
Removing the junk from your food bag doesn’t mean you need to go buy expensive foods marketed as ‘sports’ foods (like clif bars or gatorade). Many of those are just candy bars in sheep’s clothing: similar ingredients with a marketing spin. Whole foods from bulk bins are often less expensive and, as covered earlier, you’ll likely need to carry less to fuel you.
If you’re not eating the ultra-processed stuff, where will you get your carbs? Carbs are an important part of fueling a long hike, but you can get them from dried fruits, tubers, legumes, whole grains and other real food. Relying on the highly processed ones is not only unnecessary but can be damaging to your performance and long term health, as discussed.
5 Ways to Avoid the Pitfalls of the Junk Food Diet
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% Junk 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.
Focus on 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.
Read labels and 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.
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. Here’s how I plan my resupply boxes.
Make up for micronutrient deficiencies in town by choosing fresh vegetables and salads instead of (or at least in addition to) pizza, burgers, and beer.
Make small changes. It doesn’t have to be an all or nothing approach. Here are some ideas:
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 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.
Start slow and do what you can. As they say, the dose makes the poison. Even making a few small changes is a good step towards fueling yourself for performance and creating a better environment at the same time.
The good news? You’re FREE. Absolutely free to make your own decisions. Free to choose pesticide-laden junk or free to fuel on nature’s buffet of whole foods. You decide.