Are you carrying the most calorie-dense foods?

junk food

Looking for the most calorie-dense backpacking provisions to reduce the food weight you have to carry? Double check those labels before filling your food bag with the common ultra-processed fare.  If you’re looking to eat healthy and reduce the food weight you’re carrying, read on.

eat calorie dense food

A common objection I hear about healthy eating on trail is that healthy foods do not have enough calories to fuel such a demanding physical endeavor as thru-hiking.

Hikers assume that all ‘junk food’ is going to be the better option to get the most calories per ounce. While many of the junk food staples are calorie dense, deeper investigation reveals that not all junk foods are as energy dense as assumed, and that many healthy foods pack as much of a punch, if not more, than many common ultra-processed backpacking foods.

trail mix calorie

The purpose of this post is to illustrate that even if calorie density is the only metric being looked at when it comes to choosing your backpacking food, healthy foods still come out higher in calories than many of the junk foods. Side note: caloric density should not be used as the sole metric because healthy foods add a lot of other benefits to the diet beyond calories.

For reference, hikers are often encouraged to aim for 125 calories or more per ounce. Packing items with more calories per ounce allows the hiker to carry less overall food weight.

Check out the following list to get an idea of which foods meet the calorie mark and which fall short. I randomly chose 10 common processed hiker foods and 10 unprocessed alternatives. I actually wasn’t sure exactly how the options would shake out, so the results were interesting and affirming to me.

Foods are presented in order of descending calorie content. For ease of reading, calorie density values are in bold, as are whole food choices. Processed food options are italicized. I’ve linked to some of my favorite brands, in case you’re curious. 

  • Olive Oil
    • Serving = 13.5g= 119 cal=248 cal/oz
  • Coconut Oil
    • Serving=14g= 120 cal =240 cal/oz
  • Walnuts
    • Serving=1 oz=185/oz
  • Nut butters
    • Serving=32g=210 cal= 184 cal/oz
  • Almonds
    • Serving=1 oz=163 cal/oz
  • Fritos
    • Serving=1oz= 160 cal/oz
  • Sweet Potato Chips, with just sweet potatoes, coconut oil, sea salt
    • Serving=1oz= 150cal= 150 cal/oz
  • Snickers
    • Serving=48g= 248 cal= 145 cal/oz
  • Doritos
    • Serving=1oz= 140 cal/oz
  • Oreos
    • Serving=34g=160 cal= 133 cal/oz
  • Top Ramen
    • Serving=42g=190 cal=126 cal/oz
  • Trail Mix
    • Serving =45g= 200 cal= 125 cal/oz
  • Knorr Rice Side
    • Serving=63g=240 cal= 106 cal/oz
  • Instant Oatmeal
    • Serving=40g=150 cal= 105 cal/oz
  • Poptarts
    • Serving= 55g= 200 calories= 100 cal/oz
  • Instant Mashed Potatoes
    • Serving=29g=97 cal= 97 cal/oz
  • Dehydrated Refried Beans
    • Serving=35g =116 cal= 93 cal/oz
  • Flour tortillas
    • Serving=70g=210 cal=84 cal/oz
  • Dried Apricots
    • Serving=1oz=68 cal/oz
  • Tuna
    • Serving=2.6 oz= 80 cal= 31 cal/oz

calorie dense olive oil

Overview

This review is admittedly brief and it does not definitively suggest that packing all healthy food will be the most calorie dense route or that packing all junk food will be either. Interestingly though, the top 5 most calorie dense options are whole foods.

Again, while this post was primarily looking at calorie density as the only metric, it’s worth noting that the whole food options are packed with more vitamins, minerals, and healthy fat than the junk food alternatives.

This demonstrates that you don’t need to sacrifice calorie density while getting all the benefits that come from eating whole foods, and avoiding the pitfalls of junk food, such as inflammatory preservatives, dyes, and trans fats.

I do realize that this is by no means an exhaustive list of backpacking foods, either from the processed list or the whole foods list. I randomly chose 10 of each to compare. Also, exact values may vary slightly depending on the brand selected, or the specific variety in the case of items like trail mix, nut butters, rice sides, etc.

However, the exact values will not be far off those listed above, and I believe those listed are clear enough to illustrate the point that junk food isn’t always better when it comes to caloric density.

What are your favorite foods? Does this list make you rethink your back country food choices?

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Rim to Rim to Rim in a Day: Nutrition

Fueling for a long day on trail can make or break the outcome of your hike. As you can imagine, I’m pretty intentional about giving my body what it needs to succeed, especially when I’m undertaking a physically stressful endeavor, such as hiking 40+ miles with 11k’ of elevation gain in a day. This post covers my Rim to Rim to Rim (R2R2R) nutrition strategy.

If you’re interested in reading a full account of my hike, please see this post, where I discuss the gear I wore/carried as well as details from my day of hiking in the Grand Canyon.

What follows is a list of what I ate during my day of hiking R2R2R. Of course, how I eat, move, sleep, etc. on a daily basis has a greater overall impact on performance than what I do in one 24 hour period, but for those interested, here’s how I approach fueling a long day of hiking.

I’ll also explain a bit about why I chose what to eat and why I chose to eat it when I did. The intention is to provide insight into how I eat for endurance and lasting energy, and hopefully you can take some tips away to use on your own adventures.

rim to rim to rim food

This photo provides a general idea of the food I brought with me to the Grand Canyon, from which I would choose what to carry on my R2R2R hike. I didn’t take all of this and I only carried a serving or two of the items pictured in bulk (e.g. the greens powder, the protein powder, the almond butter). Some of it I didn’t take at all (e.g. the bagels and the coconut chocolate).

To determine how much to carry, I used calories as the primary metric. Because I wanted to be sure I had plenty for an over-nighter should I need to stay in the canyon, I carried a bit extra, and aimed for ~4,000 calories.

Here’s approximately what I ate and when, followed by an explanation of why.

5am: 3 scoops Vital Proteins Collagen Peptides + 1 scoop Trader Joes Organic Maca Powder + Four Sigmatic 10 Mushroom Blend + 1 scoop Amazing Grass Superfood + 1 spoonful almond butter (my favorite is Natural Grocer’s fresh ground… so fluffy and creamy) + 12 oz. strongly brewed Puehr Tea.

Supplements taken with breakfast: 1000 mg Vitamin CSelenium, Zinc, Omega Complex and Cellular Vitality Complex (found here, search lifelong vitality pack).

8am: Primal Kitchen Bar

10am: 1 banana, a couple servings Jackson’s Honest Sweet Potato Chips

12pm: 2 homemade date bites (similar to this recipe)

1pm: More sweet potato chips + 1 spoonful almond butter

3 pm: Primal Kitchen Bar

4pm: 1 date bite

5:30 pm: Good Day Caffeine Chocolate, 2 spoonful almond butter, a couple servings Jackson’s Honest Sprouted Red Corn Tortilla Chips

6 Nuun electrolyte tablets in water throughout day

Explanation

Whatever time you choose to break your fast (breakfast), it’s arguably the most important part of the day, nutritionally speaking. I started the morning with 30 grams of protein and a healthy fat, as I often do, whether on trail or off. This breakfast is satiating, so I don’t have to think about fueling again as quickly, and it also boosts leptin, a hormone which decreases appetite and leaves me feeling more satiated for the rest of the day.

I find that having a high carb/high sugar breakfast puts me on an insulin roller coaster of sugar spikes and crashes. High carb breakfasts cause me to be hungry an hour later, after the sugar has worn off, and I find myself craving more carbs. There’s nothing wrong with carbs, and of course, they’re necessary for glucose-dependent activities such as hiking, but glucose (carbs) is a quick-burning fuel. Adding fat and protein to meals slows down digestion and creates slower-burning, longer lasting, more stable energy. Adding fat and protein to pretty much everything I eat balances blood sugar and helps me have stable energy all day.

In an effort to postpone getting into too much of a calorie deficit, I had a protein bar after I reached the river, while walking through the canyon. Food would be easier to digest during easy walking. Our bodies only process about 200-300 calories per hour, so I try to eat throughout the day, so I can keep moving, as opposed to eating a lot at once.

Right before beginning the climb to the North Rim, I wanted to take in a decent amount of carbs to fuel me, so I had a banana and chips. I also knew I’d be in the sun and beginning to sweat a lot, which is why I chose a salty snack. The potassium from the banana was also helpful for mineral balance while sweating.

About 2 miles from the North Rim, it was getting hot and I was hitting a wall, so I had a couple of date bites, which are high carb, but with a little fat and protein.

At the rim, I took a short break for some chips and almond butter to replenish some salt, and because it’s my favorite trail snack. I also wanted the carbs and fat to fuel me on the way down.

Back at the bottom, walking along the river, I was beginning to get tired, so I had another bar and a date bite to keep me moving.

My last snack was before crossing the river, heading back up to South Rim. I chose caffeine chocolate to give me an extra boost on the 5,000′ climb, chips for the salt and carbs, and almond butter for the fat to fuel the last 7 miles. I probably should’ve snacked again on some carbs a couple miles before the end because I was definitely hitting a wall, but I pushed on instead.

I made sure to drink a lot of water throughout the day, especially at sources, where I would ‘camel up’. I added Nuun tabs to replenish electrolytes lost through sweat.

Whatever your adventure, whether long or short, hopefully this provided some insight into how I think about maintaining energy for a long day outdoors.

If you want more ideas on fueling for endurance, check out my free ebook here.

grand canyon

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How to Use Herbs to Enhance Athletic Performance

trail

The days are growing longer and if you haven’t already started getting back outside and getting after it again, it’s time.

It’s easy to understand how what you eat and drink can impact your body’s performance, but did you know that you can optimize your active lifestyle with certain herbs as well?

Herbs can aid in reducing inflammation, improving stamina, and increasing speed of recovery, among other benefits. Include the following herbs in your daily routine to help your body perform better, whether your preferred style of movement is running, biking, backpacking, yoga, or a stroll in the park.

runner

Adaptogens are a class of herbs which promote homeostasis and increase a person’s resistance to stress. Some key adaptogens to consider for an active lifestyle include Rhodiola, Eleuthero, and Ashwagandha.

Rhodiola (Rhodiola Rosea)

In regards to athletic performance, Rhodiola has been shown to reduce both lactate levels and parameters of skeletal muscle damage after an exhaustive exercise session.

Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus)

Eleuthero, also called Siberian Ginseng, has long been used by athletes to improve endurance. This study showed that 8 weeks of supplementation (800 mg daily) “enhances endurance capacity, elevates cardiovascular functions and alters the metabolism for sparing glycogen”.

Ashwagandha (Ashwagandha Somnifera)

Ashwagandha is another herb that has been shown to improve aerobic capacity. Eight weeks of supplementation (500 mg twice daily) significantly improved VO2 max and time to exhaustion.

Turmeric (Curcuma Longa)

Turmeric is well-known for its anti-inflammatory effects. Studies indicate that the anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin, the active component in turmeric, may offset some of the performance deficits associated with eccentric exercise-induced muscle damage.

Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis) & Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)

This 2014 study indicated that athletes supplementing with Cordyceps and Reishi mushrooms showed an increased capacity to quench free radicals, thereby protecting them from oxidative stress and over-training symptoms.

Maca (Lepidium meyenii)

In addition to its hormone-balancing effects, research suggests that Maca root, taken daily for as little as 14 days, has the ability to improve endurance in athletes.

stretching

In addition to considering these herbs to facilitate an active lifestyle, support a healthy, balanced body by including a mix of strength training, aerobic training, and stretching into your physical routine.

With a little planning, supplementing with high-quality herbs can enhance and optimize your active, healthy lifestyle!

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Fueling a Healthy Adventure on a Budget

wind river hike

This post originally appeared on the Trek

 

Besides “Do you carry a gun,” one the most common questions on trail is “What do you eat?

From battling constant hunger, to pack weight considerations, to sticking to a budget, planning your food strategy can be one of the most challenging aspects of a long-distance hike. If you want to eat healthy on trail? That can feel even more daunting. Aside from gear, food is one of the biggest expenses of a thru-hike.

A trait I’ve noticed in the most savvy, enduring hikers—those who find the resources to hit the trail again and again—is frugality. I don’t mean simply being cheap—I’m referring to an ability to optimize and use one’s resources wisely. Whether you’ve got a $3,000 budget or a $10,000 budget for your hike, the goal is finding the sweet spot of saving money without feeling deprived.

happy hikers sunset

If you don’t know your budget, try to figure it out. In 2017, running out of money was the second-leading cause of hikers quitting the AT and PCT, second only to injury. Make a plan and do your best to stick to it. More on that in a moment.

Many hikers believe that eating healthy on trail is more expensive than eating junk food. They also assume it’s time-consuming and difficult, which can drive many otherwise healthy eaters to choose readily-available, packaged foods. If you’re not sure how healthy eating can increase your performance on trail, check out this article about the potential dangers of fueling on processed foods.

Tips for hiking healthy on a budget

Yes, it’s possible to eat well on trail without breaking the bank. Once you train your mind to optimize for both healthy and budget-friendly options, they’ll start popping out everywhere. All recommendations are designed to be calorie-dense, nutrient-dense, and as lightweight as possible.

budget

Preparation before hitting the trail

Planning for a thru-hike is a lot of work, but preparing for a life-changing endeavor is part of the excitement. As far as food prep goes, I’m not going to sugarcoat it: healthy eating on a budget involves more effort than winging it and hoping you don’t go broke. Having a plan will prevent impulse spending and easily avoidable budget mistakes.

Many hikers are ambitious Type-A planners anyway, so dig into the details, make a spreadsheet, and have fun optimizing.

How to prepare in advance:

  1. Determine your resupply strategy. Will you be mailing boxes, resupplying in towns, or a combination of both? Do your research and choose what’s right for you. For the purposes of healthy eating and saving money, I’ve found a mix of in-town resupply and maildrops to be optimal. If you prefer hard-to-find items, such as specific supplements or protein powders, or if you have food intolerances, consider sending those items to your resupply location, and buy common items, such as cured meats, nut butters, and trail mix in town.
  2. Look over your potential resupply locations. In the places where a gas station or tiny store is your only option, send a box. Otherwise, you’re stuck paying high prices for less than optimal food. Five dollars for a Snickers bar? No thanks.
  3. Now that you know how many boxes you’re sending and where you’re sending them, it’s time to gather food. It’s beyond the scope of this article to detail how you determine your food requirements, but as a general rule, it will be based on your body size (and correspondingly, your base metabolic rate) plus how many miles you plan to hike per day. For example, I need about 3,500 calories per day—or about two pounds of food—to fuel 25-30 mile days once I’m a few weeks into a thru-hike. If it’s colder or the terrain is particularly rugged, that fuel requirement amount increases. Each person will have different needs based on their size, climate, terrain, etc. Make a list of healthy trail foods you know you’ll enjoy. Consider dried fruit, dehydrated beans and veggies, oats, quinoa, nuts, and nut butters, plus any other whole foods. The shorter the ingredient list, the better. For additional ideas, dive online or reference my ebook.
  4. With this list in hand, search online for the best price. Buying in bulk is a great way to cut costs.
    1. Consider Costco, Trader Joes, and grocery outlets like Shop’n’Kart, where you can find both conventional and organic options at lower prices. Find stores with bulk bins, which not only cuts down on packaging, but is often where you’ll find more whole-food options like nuts, dehydrated beans and grains, and dried fruit.
    2. Watch out for freeze-dried meals or protein bars marketed as “backpacking food.” These are often overpriced and not always particularly healthy. With a little know-how and experimentation, creating your own healthy meals can be easy and inexpensive.
    3. Consider shopping online. Find dehydrated fruits, veggies, and beans here and here . Choose products with nothing added-just the fruit/veggie/bean. Rehydrating these on trail is simple and an easy way to pack in fiber and vitamins. There are many online hubs for healthy snacks including Vitacost and Direct Eats.
    4. Depending on time and budget, you may opt to dehydrate some of your own meals. This is more labor intensive, but can save money in the long run. If you have access to inexpensive organic produce, a dehydrator, and you enjoy the process, consider this option. However, dehydrating your own meals is not essential for eating healthy on a budget.
    5. Brainstorm options based on personal connections, and where you live. Do you have a friend in the restaurant industry? Ask them if you can tack on items to their next wholesale order, or ask if they’ll take you to Restaurant Depot. Pay them back promptly and do them a favor in the future. I worked as a pastry chef before my PCT hike and this strategy is how I made 30 pounds of various trail mixes for much cheaper than purchasing retail.
    6. Once you have all your materials, sort them into location-specific boxes. The amount of food in each box will depend on your daily calorie requirements, your daily mileage, and the distance to the next resupply point. Estimate for now, then dial it in on trail and make adjustments. Supplement your box with town purchases or hiker box snacks. Repackage food into appropriate serving sizes and divvy the food up into boxes. Spreadsheets are great for this.

For the love of whole foods

Eating more whole foods means you need less food. Even if personal and planetary health is low on your list of priorities, pretty much everyone cares about saving money and reducing pack weight. Research suggests that the added fiber, essential fatty acids, protein, and micronutrients in whole foods are more satiating and filling than ultra-processed foods. This means you can eat less, buy less, and carry less. Win win win.

cascade locks pct

On trail and in town

It can be hard not to spend a ton of money when you walk into a town famished. You’ve been dreaming about burgers, pizza, and beer for the last 100 miles. Enjoy yourself, but remember to have a plan.

  1. If you have a resupply box, pick it up before going to the store. Pack your food bag, and use extra food as town snacks. Yes, you’ll want to eat 24/7 while in town, but lessen the blow to your wallet by snacking on food you’ve already paid for.
  2. Take advantage of hiker boxes before you resupply at the grocery store. Sometimes you find gems like nut butters, healthy bars, olive oil packets, and dehydrated veggies. Be judicious, don’t empty the entire box into your food bag, and be sure to pay it forward by donating to hiker boxes down the line.
  3. At restaurants, have a tall glass of water (or three) and a salad before binging on all the pizza and ice cream. Celebrate that you didn’t have to carry that water from the source. When you fill up on veggies and hydrate yourself, not only are you making up for micronutrient deficiencies in your normal veg-poor diet, but you won’t need three large pizzas, two burgers, a case of beer, and a gallon of ice cream to feel full. Plus, the extra fiber will benefit your gut microbiome, which impacts your immunity, energy levels, and mental health.
  4. Buy in-town meals and snacks from the grocery store rather than going to restaurants for every meal. You’ll eat healthier and spend less. Pick up materials for a deluxe salad to make at the hotel room. Grab a bag of veggies to finish before hitting the trail again. Shop at stores with bulk bins, so you can get the exact amount you need and reduce packaging. Team up with your hiking buddy to add variety and split purchases when a desired item comes in a bigger size than you need.
  5. Buy from the grocery store rather than a gas station or small market. You’ll find healthier options, fresher food, and lower prices.
  6. Limit your time in town. Ultimately, spending time in town costs money—everything from lodging to food to transportation, so get in, get your chores done, rest, and get back out.

pacific crest trail

The Most Important Rule: Know Thyself

  • How much prep are you willing to do? Remember that buying is easier than dehydrating your own food.
  • What do you actually like to eat? Test it out before you send it in every resupply box.
  • Do you mind eating the same thing everyday? I don’t, but many people need variety.
  • How much do you eat? Hiker Hunger is real and it will set in eventually.
  • Are you prone to impulse buys in town? Set yourself up for success. Enjoy a good meal or two, but keep your long-term goal in mind.

Sticking with your budget shouldn’t feel like deprivation. It should feel good because you’re being considerate to your future self who wants to have the health and cash to finish the trail.

Pay attention

This final tip is simple, but generally overlooked (on and off trail). Awareness is the first step to behavior modification. Pay attention to where your resources are going. If you’re always looking for ways to optimize eating healthy and cheaply, the opportunities present themselves.

Small improvements in your eating and spending habits add up to big changes. You make it to the end of the 2000-mile trail one step at a time.

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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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What’s Wrong With Me? (aka My Journey with Hashimoto’s)

summit wellness

It’s been years since I felt as strong as I used to.

Ever since finishing my thru hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, I’d had bouts of extreme fatigue, deep muscle soreness, cold intolerance, mood swings, and hair loss. An assortment of seemingly random symptoms that would come and go, leaving me feeling confused and frustrated.

Many of these symptoms have been present in my life for a long time, but after finishing the PCT, they became much more pronounced. I expected to finish feeling stronger than I’d ever been before. I’d jump right back into trail running and be at a new level of strength and endurance. Instead, I couldn’t run more than a few miles without feeling extreme exhaustion. I was depressed. I wasn’t having my cycle and I often felt sore for no reason.

I’ve always been athletic and health conscious. I was doing everything I knew to do to be healthy. And I still felt horrible. After a few months of rest and experiencing only minimal improvement, I went to see a doctor. I had some blood work done, everything came back “normal”, and I was told that perhaps I needed to improve my diet, exercise more, and that essentially, it was just in my head. This was frustrating, as I was a health conscious vegetarian who exercised daily, and I knew my body well enough to know something was not right.

At this point, it became clear I’d have to find my own answers. Due to a background in biochemistry and decades of reading health publications, I had a good foundation to start from. I read and listened to anything I could find having to do with adrenal and mitochondrial health. I sought out mentors, I interned under wellness practitioners, and I completed a Botanical Medicine Certification to understand what would truly support my body rather than cover up symptoms. I studied functional nutrition and began a certification to become a Holistic Nutritionist.

I experimented with different diets, training protocols, and supplements. Symptoms would come and go. I was continuing to train for ultra marathons and my performance would come in waves. Sometimes I’d feel great and run for hours with no problem.  Other times, I was weak, tired, and lacked the stamina needed for long runs. Despite the times when I didn’t feel well, I continued to push myself to run daily.

I’d built an identity around being athletic, outdoorsy, and tough, and pushing through is what you did whether you felt like it or not. While this mentality has served me well in several endeavors, including long distance hiking, I was causing my body to be further depleted without even realizing it.

Eventually, I found my way to a functional medicine practitioner who did an extensive intake, including a full thyroid panel. It was then that I discovered I had Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.

Hashimoto’s is an autoimmune disease in which the body attacks it’s own thyroid gland.  The thyroid gland produces thyroid hormones, which have wide-ranging functions in the body, including regulation of metabolism, growth and development, and temperature control.

When I finally received the diagnosis, it was somewhat of a relief. I’d been struggling with an array of unexplained symptoms for quite some time. Despite all the research and self-experimentation I’d done, I still had no real answers up until this point.

My reaction came in waves. At first, I was glad to have something to target. I knew my direction. I could make a plan. Next came the frustration of knowing that autoimmune conditions are hard to treat and something you manage for the rest of your life. My identity as a long distance hiker and ultra runner was in peril. What if I never fully recovered? What if I had to give up long treks in the wilderness–the activity that filled my soul the most?

And during all this time, I was in denial of the heaviness, the seriousness of what this meant for me. I thought I would remove trigger foods from my diet, take a break from training, and be back to 100% in no time, right? Not quite.

I realized this is a pattern for me. I tend not to acknowledge the heaviness of an event or situation. I put blinders on and convince myself that everything will turn out fine. This lens of optimism and guaranteed triumph over hardship has served me well in life. I often push forward instead of letting fear get in my way. But it finally came crashing down on me that this tendency has also kept me from fully experiencing life and fully feeling my own struggle and that of my loved ones. Not fully feeling kept me from being as empathetic and present as is necessary to process and move through hardship.

There are many factors that go into developing an autoimmune condition, including a genetic predisposition, a trigger (or several), and gut impermeability. It’s hard to know the trigger for sure, but for me, I believe it was a rattlesnake bite and brown recluse bite in the year before I hiked the PCT, coupled with the stress of the trail and a significant break-up that caused Hashimoto’s to surface for me.

Autoimmune conditions are not an easy fix. You don’t take a pill and get cured. In the conventional medical model, those with Hashimoto’s take thyroid medications for the rest of their lives. These provide synthetic thyroid hormones to manage symptoms, but taking the medications don’t actually get to the root cause to stop the body’s immune attack on it’s own thyroid gland.

I’ve always avoided pharmaceuticals when possible, opting to focus on the root cause of the problem and restoring the body to balance, rather than suppressing symptoms. My approach to Hashimoto’s is no different. I found experts who had put the condition into remission through changes in diet and lifestyle. The science and evidence was there to support this approach so I would try that before considering medications.

It’s been about 6 months since learning about the condition and I’ve been on a protocol that supports my liver, adrenals, and gut health. While my symptoms have improved dramatically, I still struggle occasionally.

However, I’ve learned an incredible amount about autoimmunity and health through my journey. I’m far enough on the path to have learned how to deal with the condition, what exacerbates symptoms, and what relieves them.

pct hiking sierras

I have high hopes for big adventures in 2018. I’ve felt so deeply the struggle of not being outside doing what I love because of how terrible I’ve felt. It motivates me to get well, learn as much as I can, and to guide others who get sustenance from being in the outdoors, but who struggle with their health.

I’ll post more on the protocol I’ve followed and on my journey with Hashimoto’s in a future article, but if you have questions, please don’t hesitate to post a comment below or use the contact form to reach out. I read every response.

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Top 5 Reasons To Eat Real Food as an Outdoor Endurance Athlete

If I’m performing well, why should I reconsider what I eat?

Let me start by saying that I’m not going to tell you that you should eat a certain way. Eat whatever works for you.

While I do believe there are some basic nutrition principles that can benefit everyone, there is no one perfect diet.  Further, the perfect diet for you may change throughout your life.  But that’s a topic for anther day.

Change Starts At Home

The objective of this post is to explore why we make the food choices that we do. As someone who gains her sustenance through time spent outdoors, I try to make environmentally conscious choices.

When it came time to pursue a career path, I wavered between my deep interest in human performance, my passion for outdoor conservation, and my desire to make an impact through working to change the food system. When it came down to it, I felt like working as a nutritionist and addressing peoples’ personal food choices, would check all three boxes.

With a rapidly increasing population to feed and a current food system which is destructive to humans and the environment, I believe the biggest impact each of us can make is to think about what we do day in and day out.  Choosing to use green cleaning products, choosing to spend our dollars with socially conscious companies, and choosing how we nourish ourselves most likely has more of an impact on our future world than signing a petition or donating a coupe dollars to a non-profit. While those are important actions as well, it’s what we do consistently over time that changes our lives and the world. 

Why I Choose to Eat Real Food

As an outdoor endurance athlete, here are the top reasons I continue to fuel myself with real food as opposed to the sugary, processed, easily accessible fare I see filling the backpacks and bellies of fellow hikers, runners, bikers and other athletes.

Health

The most obvious reason to eat real food is enhanced personal health. Processed cakes, cookies, chips, and bars are often laden with preservatives, artificial colors and sweeteners, and a ton of sugar. These are linked to adverse health effects, including rhinitis, weight gain, brain tumors, and even cancer.  Diets high in processed foods promote obesity, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, and autoimmune diseases.

As someone who wants to perform at my best and live a long life, full of adventure, eating well just makes sense.

Price

Many people argue that it costs more to eat healthy. The price of real food, especially organic, may be more expensive than conventional produce or packaged products. However, when you consider the hidden costs of a junk food diet, it’s more cost effective to just eat real food.

What hidden costs?

Junk food often causes us to eat more, causing us to buy more, and causes long term health implications (discussed above) that lead to more medications and healthcare expenses.  Plus you’ll save money (and your stomach lining) by laying off that Vitamin I.This article from the Huffington Post expands on these hidden costs.

Beyond the monetary cost, what’s the cost of not being healthy enough to complete your outdoor adventure, whether that’s a thru-hike of the PCT or a bike trip across the country or your first marathon? What’s the cost of not achieving your dreams? What’s the cost of missing important life events, like weddings and births of grand kids, because of poor health?

Environment

As someone who spends a lot of time outdoors and cares about the preservation of those spaces, I feel a certain responsibility not to support companies that are blatantly destroying our natural resources in the name of profit. These companies act with total disregard for planetary and personal health.

As outdoor enthusiasts, we’ve experienced first hand the power of time spent in nature, and we have a responsibility to protect those spaces not just with our voices, but with our purchasing power as well.

Freedom

I don’t like to feel like I’m owned by the big corporations. I like to believe I’m still independent-thinking, to some extent. I want to be able and wiling to go against the grain of what is ‘normal’. 

As with thru-hiking, it’s an act of rebellion to choose to eat outside the junk food paradigm. We live in a time when we’re constantly brainwashed from every direction with adverts for one new product or another. Don’t be a pawn in their game. Don’t be complicit. Step outside the box.

Self-respect

Eating is one of the most fundamental acts of being human. It may be strange to say, but eating is one of the most intimate acts of being human. We take food into our mouths and literally become composed of that food. Do you want to be made up of sodium nitrate, MSG, and Red #40? Or do you want to be made of something that was once alive? Something that was made in a lab or something that grew or grazed on real grass and drank in the sun and the air which you so love?

Eat like you give a damn about yourself and the planet.

Real food is interesting and beautiful and complex. It has the ability to connect you to a place, a culture, traditions. This is obvious when comparing a Happy Meal with a traditional Mediterranean meal cooked by a Turkish grandmother. Of course, processed foods are often chosen for convenience, and you can’t always take home-cooked meals on a 2000 mile backpacking trip, but you can apply a similar mindset when choosing food for your next adventure. For example, when I consider a bag of M&Ms versus a bag of dried fruit, such as figs, apricots, and goji berries, the fruit has so many more flavors, textures, and aliveness. It supports the health of the body and the planet.

It’s never made sense to me that we celebrate our ability to crush miles while eating the most nutrient poor food imaginable. Why not celebrate eating food that nourishes our bodies and the planet we so love?

I try to be thoughtful and intentional about my choices in all other areas of life, from how I spend my time, to what I do for work, to the companies I buy my gear from. Why wouldn’t it be the same for food?

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My Top 3 Food Strategies to Optimize Performance

How I Use Food to Optimize Performance

If you were to ask me what has moved the needle the most in terms of reclaiming my health from an autoimmune condition, well, I’m afraid the answer is pretty boring.

It’s not an exciting new human optimization hack ,nor is it an exotic supplement, or an obscure superfood.

The biggest factors in getting my thyroid and adrenals back online has been a strategic diet and intentional rest. People often want the latest, greatest thing, especially in the health space. The next wonder pill that will take away all that ails us without any additional effort on our part.

The new, the exotic, and the obscure are more sexy, that’s true, but time and time again in my life and in my health, I find that it always comes back to the basics. It’s the simple things I do consistently that create lasting change.

In this post, I’ll focus on the dietary strategies I’ve employed to use food as fuel to get back to performing at my fullest potential.

Eat a Whole Foods Diet That Turns On Intracellular Antioxidants

We’ve all heard that it’s important to eat an antioxidant rich diet, but there’s more to the story than the common adage to ‘eat your fruits and veggies’. That’s great advice, but for those of us who like to be efficient and strategic, we need to go a bit deeper.

Food is information for the body. I’m not being metaphorical here. There are actually specific foods that contain phytonutrients which have the power to upregulate or downregulate the genetic pathways which control inflammation in the body.

We’re living in a time where more than 80% of inflammation-induced chronic conditions are caused by lifestyle factors*. Eighty percent!

All of us are being exposed to more stressors than ever before. We’re constantly producing damaging free radicals, both internally from normal physiologic processes such as respiration, and externally from lifestyle choices (e.g. smoking, stress, fried foods, strenuous exercise), pesticides, environmental pollution, food preservatives, and more.

Traditionally, dietary education has focused on antioxidants from the diet to prevent free radical damage. Examples include beta-carotene, vitamin C, vitamin E, and selenium.

However, a far more effective way to approach oxidative stress is to stimulate our genes to produce proteins that are more efficient at sequestering free radicals than are dietary antioxidants. These intracellular proteins, which include superoxide dismutase, glutathione peroxidase, and catalase, quench free radicals at a rate of millions per second while dietary antioxidants quench free radicals at a rate of 1 to 1. Think of putting a house fire out with a fire truck hose versus a garden hose.

chard

The exciting part is that we can upregulate these intracellular proteins by eating certain phytonutrients from specific foods. The most well researched of those phytonutrients are in cruciferous vegetables, alliums, berries, herbs and spices, legumes, nuts and seeds, and olive oil.

Instead of eating by numbers, counting calories or calculating RDAs, the better approach is to ask ourselves: what instructions is my food giving my genes? Eating foods which activate our intracellular antioxidant enzymes is far more efficient at addressing free radical damage than relying solely on dietary antioxidants.

Balance Blood Sugar

Have you ever been hangry (hungry angry)?

I used to get hangry a lot. Besides causing my mental, physical and emotional well-being to suffer, and causing my friends and coworkers to avoid me, having chronically low blood sugar was having serious consequences on my health.

Allowing blood sugar to drop too low causes the adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol. We all know that feeling of being sweaty, weak, dizzy, and shaky.

Cortisol has been correlated with increased obesity and BMI, and is a catabolic hormone, which means it breaks tissue down. This is disadvantageous for those of us trying to build or maintain muscle.

Cortisol must be managed, and while there are several ways to do this, diet is one of the most effective. Avoiding excessive release of cortisol is accomplished through avoiding extreme spikes and crashes in blood sugar.

metabolic fire

When considering our metabolic fire, the campfire analogy is one of the best. Carbohydrates are the kindling. Fats and protein are the logs. When we put kindling on the fire, it lights quickly and burns out quickly. When we put logs on the fire, it burns slow and steady. Carbohydrates cause a quick spike and crash in blood sugar, causing stress on the body and excessive cortisol to be released. Fats and proteins are broken down and assimilated by the body more gradually and allow for more sustained energy.

Favoring fats, proteins, and fiber over carbohydrates helps the body maintain balanced blood sugar and avoid the excessive release of cortisol.

Improve Gut Health

People like to say “You are what you eat”, but I believe the saying “You are what you absorb” is more accurate. You can eat the best diet in the world, but if you’re not absorbing and assimilating your nutrients, it’s a wasted effort.

Our intestines are about 25 feet long and contain an estimated 100 trillion bacteria which help us digest our food, produce certain vitamins, regulate our immune system, and keep us healthy by protecting us against disease.

There are many lifestyle factors that drive gut flora imbalance, but one of the primary ones is diet. When the microbiome is out of balance, we can experience disease, fatigue, anxiety, depression, immune suppression, food sensitivities, weight gain and overall diminished quality of life.

The health of your microbiome plays a role in which vitamins and minerals make their way to fuel your muscles, and this is why gut health is the foundation of using food as fuel.

Consuming a range of insoluble and soluble fibers may be the best way of maintaining a healthy gut microbiota population. Specifically, foods like vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and legumes act as prebiotic food which feed your good gut bacteria. Probiotic foods, which help support healthy bacterial populations, are also important and examples include cultured and fermented foods. Also consider a high quality probiotic supplement like this or this.

It’s Our Choice
Diet is one of the biggest factors in determining our health and one which we have complete control over. Focusing on these dietary strategies has been crucial in recovering my health from Hashimoto’s. Our bodies have an incredible capacity to heal if we allow them. How amazing is that?!

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