Top 5 Supplements to Take on Trail

hiker supplements

The ideal scenario is to get all the nutrients you need from whole foods, but there are many circumstances when supplementation can benefit nearly everyone.

Supplements can be a controversial topic. On one extreme, there are health advocates claiming you need a supplement for every ache and pain. On the other extreme, you have skeptics claiming that supplements are unnecessary, a waste of money, and even dangerous.

As with many divisive topics, the truth is somewhere in between. Nutritionally speaking, we know that the body requires certain levels of nutrients to function optimally. We also know that due to the abundance of nutritionally poor foods available today, many of us do not get the daily requirements of several key nutrients. Furthermore, chronic illness, gut dysbiosis, exposure to toxins, stress, and heavy physical demands on the body all deplete nutrient stores more quickly.

For that reason, supplements can be a good form of nutritional insurance. During the extreme physical demands placed on the body during a long distance hike, supplementation is helpful for optimal energy and endurance, enhanced immune function, faster recovery, and reduced illness and fatigue. If you’re curious how certain deficiencies manifest in the body, here is an excellent article on that by Dr. Aviva Romm.

A long distance hike is unique in that it’s a feat of extreme endurance. In most sports, you exert the body, and then you have recovery time to restore depleted nutrients. It’s not unusual during a long distance hike to walk a marathon a day, with a pack on, day after day for 5 months. Couple that with the lack of fresh foods and the notoriously ultra-processed diet of the thru-hiker. It’s no wonder that many hikers end up emaciated, sick, injured, and ending their hike early.

colorado trail

Supplements for the Trail

Supplements are not a substitute for a good diet. A high quality, anti-inflammatory diet is always the place to start when you want to feel and perform your best. Nutrients in their whole food form are absorbed into the body better than in supplement form, and there’s often more control over sourcing and quality with food.

As detailed in this post about my Oregon Desert Trail resupply, in addition to packing nutrient dense food in every box, I almost always include the following supplements.

For high quality supplements, I prefer to shop exclusively through specific trusted companies. Shopping from random sources can be hit or miss in terms of buying products that are real, safe, and effective. To ensure you’re buying safe products, you can access my online dispensary of professional-grade supplements by clicking here. There are hundreds of brands and you can save 10-20% with this link. There are no gimmicks. It’s simply a resource I want to provide to readers. If you insist on shopping Amazon, you can find links to a few of my favorites by clicking on the supplement name below.

One last note before we dive in: I am not a doctor and, as such, I don’t diagnose, prescribe, treat, or cure. The following ideas are simply what I’ve seen work for myself and for others. For personalized health advice, see a qualified practitioner. If you’re on prescription medications, don’t start supplements without the guidance of your doctor.

High Quality Multi-Vitamin

To cover your basic nutritional bases, a high quality multi-vitamin is helpful. This is especially important as we live in a time when our food sources are compromised, we don’t always take time for proper meals, and we experience more stress than ever. This certainly applies on a long distance hike when you’re consuming fewer fresh fruits and veggies, which are likely a major source of your nutrients in off-trail life.

Probiotics

You’ve probably heard me say it before, and you’ll likely hear it again, which is that gut health is one of the most important foundational pieces to optimal health. Over 80% of disease can be linked to lifestyle choices, and our gut is ground zero for our immune health, brain health, and production of important hormones. It’s also where digestion, absorption, and assimilation occurs.

To be sure you’re getting the most out of the foods and supplements you’re ingesting, it’s important to pay attention to your gut health. This includes eating fiber-filled prebiotic foods, as well as eating probiotic foods. Because it’s difficult to get probiotic foods on trail, consider a supplement with a diversity of strains, and rotate brands regularly. Also note that these microorganisms are sensitive to heat and light, so store capsules in a dark container deep in your pack.

Krill Oil

Krill Oil is fantastic for brain and heart health and for keeping overall inflammation low. Most modern diets are high in inflammatory Omega 6 fats and low in anti-inflammatory Omega 3 fats. By increasing Omega 3 fats in the diet, we get closer to the ideal 4:1 (omega 6:omega 3) ratio. By comparison, most modern diets are closer to 20:1.

As explained on the Bulletproof website, “Krill oil is a superior source of EPA and DHA because the polyunsaturated fats are packaged as phospholipids, which can be used immediately by your body. The EPA and DHA in fish oil, on the other hand, are typically packaged as triglycerides and have to undergo additional processing in order to make them bioavailable. Krill oil is also more stable because it includes astaxanthin, a powerful antioxidant, that protects the fragile fats from oxidizing.

Animal-based omega-3’s from krill and fish oils are both better sources than vegetable-based omega-3’s, such as the Alpha-linolenic Acid (ALA) in flax oil. Only about 1-4% of ALA is converted into DHA, so getting those higher potency sources from krill and fish is more efficient.”

Storage of your krill oil is important because fats are prone to oxidation. This not only makes them ineffective, but makes them damaging to the body. Heat, air, and light degrade oils. Use capsules rather than liquid, and store in an airtight amber or cobalt bottle. Place them in the middle of your pack, where temps are more stable (ideally below 100*F).

Turmeric

Turmeric is a major source of the plant polyphenol Curcumin, which has powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. A 2017 research review of it’s effects on human health attributes the following benefits to this powerful spice:

It aids in the management of oxidative and inflammatory conditions, metabolic syndrome, arthritis, anxiety, and hyperlipidemia. It may also help in the management of exercise-induced inflammation and muscle soreness, thus enhancing recovery and performance in active people.

It’s important to choose a high quality source that contains piperine (the active component of black pepper), which increases the bioavailability of the curcumin by 2000%.

Magnesium

Magnesium is involved in over 300 biochemical reaction in the body. It’s important for several functions including muscle and heart function, immunity, nerve cell function, energy production, and strong bones. Nearly half of all Americans are deficient in Magnesium.

There are many forms of magnesium to choose from. For sound sleep and a healthy morning BM, magnesium citrate is a great choice. For general magnesium deficiency and a highly bioavailable form, magnesium glycinate is helpful. Do your research and choose what’s best for you.  

If you’re curious about the strategies I use and the types of food I pack for optimal energy and overall health on a long hike, download my free Eat for Endurance eBook here. It includes a sample menu and principles I use to stay illness and injury free.

supplements

Supplementation in the ‘Off Season’

Beyond supporting performance goals on trail, supplements can be a key additional to optimal health at home as well. In addition to the above supplements, which I also take at home, I often cycle through others. My choices depend on what aspect of my health I’m focused on improving, such as adrenal or hormone health. This may include vitamin D3, B vitamins, antioxidants (like glutathione and Vitamin C), and adaptogenic herbs and mushrooms (like Reishi, Ashwagandha, and Cordyceps).

A Word on Choosing Supplements

Not all supplements are created equal and it’s important to choose high quality supplements and buy from trusted sources. The bottom of this post by Dr. Aviva Romm has good recommendations for choosing supplements.

Every body is different. For an individualized approach and deeper guidance, working with a health practitioner is helpful to determine what supplements may be helpful specifically for you. Again, if you’d like access to my online dispensary where you can save 10-20% off top brands, click here

With a bit of planning and preparation, you can vastly enhance the experience of your hike with targeted support and supplementation. In addition to whole nutrient-dense foods, consider taking some (or all) of these along on your next big adventure.

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Oregon Desert Trail Journal

Field Notes (but mostly photos)

I have an (almost) daily habit of journaling, whether on trail or off. My journals are less of a play by play trip guide (“we hiked X miles to Y canyon, which is part of Z wilderness…”), and more of a free-flowing reflection on my inner experience. It’s a way for me to process the moments, the days, the feelings that make up this bizarre experience called life.

In the fall of 2018, I hiked the Oregon Desert Trail westbound, with 2 hiking partners. See this post for an overview of the trip. The present post is mostly a photo essay to provide a visual representation of the ODT, loosely in chronological order, with a few random notes from my trail journal mixed in. I hope it gives you insight into how diverse and stunning this landscape is.

oregon desert trail

“We dropped down into the aptly named Painted Canyon. Cool early morning hiking. A million shades of rocks. Bruise purple, juniper berry blue, sage green, burnt orange, sun-baked-bone white. The canyon walls pockmarked with thousands of tiny caves.

The sunrise touched the tips of the surrounding rock as we continued down the wash, hopping and picking our way over water-smoothed rocks. ….The terrain opened up, the canyon walls become tall grassy hillsides on either side of us. Spires of rust-colored rock jutting out of yellow grass.”

“Once the sun is up, the day becomes unbearably hot very quickly. We realize we’ve miscalculated our mileage to the next reliable water. We come upon a horse trough. It’s full of water covered in algae. We remove the scum to unveil cool murky brown water. Grateful, we drink.”

odt water

“Up one wash after another, cheatgrass filling my shoes and socks. Several carcasses and piles of bones scattered about. The remains of a desiccated snake.”

“We continue on, hiking cross country, up drainages and canyons. We round a bend, and a quarter mile in front of us, a wild horse stares back in our direction. We approach slowly. With surprising grace, it swiftly climbs the hillside and disappears behind a rock outcropping.”

odt

“Many people don’t understand why you’d want to go on a desert hike. ‘Isn’t it lonely out there? Barren?’

There are mule deer and horses and lizards and snakes and hawks and coyotes and sages and thistles and wildflowers and rabbit brush and juniper and just so much life out here. How could one get lonely in the desert?”

“My legs were scratched to pieces and burnt with heat rash, and my shoes and socks were filled with sharp cheatgrass, but the moment I stepped into the rushing Owyhee, all the aches melted and everything, yet again, was okay. The current was swift and I held tight to some rocks underwater. It’s difficult to describe how glorious a dip in the river feels to a dust-caked, sun-soaked desert walker.”

owyhee

 

odt trio

“Despite the rough day, I’m grateful to be out here. Grateful to walk. Grateful for incredible hiking partners to laugh and suffer with. Grateful for a strong body. Trail (and life) will always bring challenges. It’s up to us how we perceive and handle them.”

odt river

“We walked dirt roads for 8 hours today. The landscape went on forever. You reach the top of a small rise and the scene resets, road and sage on into infinity. Dust devils danced in the wind. Heat waves rose from the ground. So much space for the mind to wander.

At lunch, we create personal shade patches by propping our umbrellas on sage bushes and scrunching underneath. We kept imagining we saw shade trees in the distance, but they all turned out to be weird shaped rocks or just more sage.”

“The fine dust lent itself well to telling the desert’s story. I could detect the tracks of so many different animals and invented a whole narrative in my mind. The snake, the giant millipede, the mouse, the antelope, the coyote, the jackrabbit… So many creatures have traveled here before me. People think the desert is lonely. I have to laugh. ”

“Up at 4:30 and hiking by 5 under a crescent moon and starry milky way. We walk directly east into the soon-to-be rising sun. The light filters rose, purple, orange through the clouds. Walking along the canyon rim, we make good miles on old jeep roads before the sun climbs too high in sky. Jack rabbits dart from one sage bush to the next.”

“Within a few miles, we’re forced into the river to make our way forward. The walls of the canyon are rocky and steep and the small bank that comes and goes on either side is full of willows, grasses, briers, hackberry trees, sage bushes, and massive boulders. Canyon travel is difficult and we move at 1-1.5 mph.

I’m swimming towards some large red boulders on the opposite bank, determining how I’m going to get up out of the water and onto the rock. I begin to pull myself up, eye level with the top of the boulder. I look up, searching for my next hand hold  and spot a rattlesnake about 3 feet from my face. It doesn’t rattle. It begins to slither away, then stops, flicks it’s tongue, and coils into strike position.”

“We stop for a break at a bend in the canyon. In one of the most wild and remote regions of the country, it’s unbelievably silent…. As we pack up to move on, I hear what sounds like a jet coming around the canyon wall, and swooooosh, a flock of grouse is flying directly at our heads. They head straight for us, not veering up until the last moment. We whip our heads to follow their path, and as quickly as they appeared, they had flown out of sight. “

“We hike across the playa of the Alvord desert, a 12-by-7-mile dry lake bed. Mountains in every direction. Steens Mountain, which we will climb 5,000′ up and over tomorrow, is in the foreground.”

“I rolled my ankle in the Pueblos yesterday and it’s throbbing now. We make it to the hot springs by dusk. We snack and soak and rinse our clothes and linger until our skin is pruny. It’s glorious.”

“This type of travel requires you to constantly be on; to be flexible and adaptable. You might find cow trail to follow for a few hundred yards until it peters out, or you get cliffed out, and you have to let go, and find the next path of travel until that peters out or you realize you’re off your trajectory, and then you adjust again. Constantly changing your plan, experimenting, trying, failing, and not getting frustrated in the process. Good practice for navigating life.”

“The Hart Mountain Antelope Refuge is beautiful. Easy walking along rolling hills covered in sage brush, groves of aspen, and lone junipers. We’ve seen several herds of antelope. The aspens are golden-orange-yellow-bright green. I’m grateful for this taste of fall on the autumnal equinox. We descend down to Hart Lake and pass several boulders covered in petroglyphs. ”

“The rocks here are diverse and beautiful. And sometimes painful. Lava rock strewn everywhere, including all throughout the fields of sage and cheatgrass we traverse. There’s obsidian, opal, quartz, and many more whose names I don’t know. Remnants of the region’s volcanic history.”

“I wake up to the sounds of coyotes howling again. This morning, the twilight is a lovely red glow as we climb up to a ridge. We’re up high on single track (an ODT luxury). The nearly full moon is a big orange Harvest moon setting in the valley. We crest a mountain just as the sun rises and treats us to spectacular views of the Warner mountains in all directions.”

“This trail was a time warp. 30 days felt like 4 months. I didn’t come with many expectations. I just wanted adventure. The diversity and beauty of this landscape has amazed me. Much more than miles of sage, this area holds true remoteness and hidden gems. We’ve walked 700+ miles through one of the most remote regions of the US, in one of the hottest and driest seasons on record. We didn’t see a single other hiker. We laughed a lot and never passed up a chance for shenanigans. It wasn’t a relaxing month-not by any stretch of the imagination. But it provided the space and freedom and challenge I needed. It slowed me down. It was a salve to my irritated soul.”

“Ahh, to walk all day. To explore the limits of the body and the mind. What a blessing.”

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Improve Your Digestion Today with 7 Simple Tips

veggies

“All disease begins in the gut.” This oft-cited quote from Hippocrates still holds quite true, especially in modern times when so many factors are impacting our microbiome, our digestion, and our overall gut health.

Improving and maintaining strong digestion is essential for robust health. Healthy digestion is responsible for optimal nutrient absorption, proper energy production and metabolism, and elimination of toxins and other waste products. A diverse microbiome protects us from infection and supports a healthy mind and mood, among many other things.

Employ the following tips to optimize your gut health and improve digestion immediately.

relax digestion

Relax

Healthy digestion begins in the mind, before food even enters the mouth. Sit down to eat. Take a few deep breaths to relax and feel gratitude for your meal. The sight and smell of food allow the salivary glands to begin to produce the enzymes necessary to initiate the breakdown of food. Eliminate distractions, such as watching television or reading, so you can actually taste your food and sense when you’re full. Slow down and eat mindfully. This allows the nervous system to shift into parasympathetic, aka ‘rest and digest’, mode.

Chew More

The teeth break down food into smaller pieces which make it easier for the digestive system to process. Proper chewing also produces more saliva which contains enzymes that further break down food for increased nutrient absorption.

sauerkraut digestion

Feed the Gut

Creating a healthy microbiome involves nurturing a wide variety of microbes and feeding those microbes what they need to thrive. Inoculate the gut with probiotics through fermented foods, such as sauerkraut and kimchi, and consider high quality supplements with a variety of strains. Nurture healthy gut microbes by eating a diverse range of foods, focusing on whole unprocessed foods, and consuming a lot of fiber. Legumes, whole grains, fruit, and vegetables are all great choices.

For a list of foods I enjoy on trail to maintain a healthy microbiome, download a copy of my healthy hiker grocery guide for FREE here.

Hydrate

Maintaining a steady intake of non-caffeinated beverages throughout the day is important to ensure healthy elimination and avoid constipation. Water is the ideal choice. There are many opinions on how much, but the old 8×8 rule, or eight eight-ounce glasses, is a good place to start. Increase this amount in hot climates or with heavy exercise.

Drop Unhealthy Habits

Eliminate the following activities which have been shown to disrupt digestion and a healthy microbiome: consuming artificial sweeteners and other food additives, drinking alcohol, smoking, over-consuming caffeine, being overly stressed, late night eating, and taking unnecessary pharmaceuticals.

exercise digestion

Exercise

Movement helps food pass through the digestive system. Even a short 15-20 minute walk can improve digestion. Gastrointestinal motility is important not only for physical comfort, but because it helps maintain a healthy bacterial population in the small intestine.

Consume Herbs to Enhance Digestion

Incorporate the following herbs to support liver and gallbladder health, stimulate digestion, and repair the digestive tract: Ginger root, Dandelion root, Peppermint leaf, Milk Thistle seed, and Slippery Elm bark. Use an infusion or decoction to prepare these herbs, depending on the part of the plant with which you’re working.

Incorporate any or all of the above tips to ensure robust digestion and all the benefits that go along with that!

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How to Create a Healthy Resupply in a Tiny Town

oregon desert trail

What to Eat When the Healthy Choices are Non-existent or Obscure

Let’s start with a quick story of an experience I had like this on the Oregon Desert Trail. We had just walked the remaining 7 miles into McDermitt, NV, arriving around 8am for what would be the closest day we’d have to a zero on this 750-mile route through the very sparsely populated region of eastern Oregon.

It’d been 10 days of 90-degree dusty desert hiking since we’d had a shower, and 6 days since we’d had any meals other than backpacking food. I was jonesing for some vegetables. I’d been dreaming of a big bowl of dark leafy greens with tomatoes, beets, walnuts, avocado, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar.

Alas, as much as I’d prayed to the desert gods for some real, healthy food, I knew I wasn’t going to find it here. McD is a ranching, farming, and mining town that straddles the NV/OR border. It consists of a motel, a cafe/casino, a PO, a high school, and an all-in-one gas station/market/convenience store. This was one of the few places I didn’t mail myself a resupply box on the ODT and I was immediately regretting it.

tiny town resupply
Veggies were sparse in McDermitt, NV.

After our first (of four) meals at the Say When Casino and Cafe, it was time to create our resupply for the next 5 days. We walked into the small gas station/market/c-store and I saw about 8 rows of packaged foods, some coolers of soda and beer, and a small stand of “fresh” produce (Hey, at least there’s some produce at all!). Time to get creative.

There are many such towns from which you may have to resupply, especially if you are going to hike any trails or routes off the beaten path. And especially if you decide to hike in one of the most remote regions of the country.

convenience store

How to Approach Eating for Optimal Health and Energy in a Tiny Town C-Store

First, accept that you’ll have to make some compromises, but don’t give up on the goal of healthy eating entirely! It may all look like junk, but some choices are better than others here. Let’s look more closely.

Don’t make the process overwhelming. The process is simple.

  • Make Your List

Until you get the hang of what items you need for a healthy resupply, and before going into the store, write a short list of ideas for breakfast/lunch/dinner/snacks/beverages. For efficiency and cost, choose items that can be used in multiple ways for different meals (like corn chips you’ll eat with PB for lunch and again with beans for dinner OR trail mix that can be added to oatmeal for breakfast or used as a stand alone snack). Keep your list general: nut butter, salami, breakfast bars, oatmeal, nut butter, etc. Be sure to have a mixture of flavors and textures as well as macronutrients (aiming for about 20% protein, 40% fat, 40% carb-or whatever feels best for your body).

  • Choose Your Food

Browse the shelves. When you see an item from your list, you’ll likely see multiple different varieties (chips/pb/trail mixes/etc). Which to choose? Look at the ingredient label. You are looking for the least number of ingredients possible. You are also looking to avoid added industrial oils, preservatives, food colorings, and high fructose corn syrup when possible. Unfortunately, it’s not always possible in these tiny stores, but do your best. You are also looking for items in their most whole food/least processed form. Focus on proteins, healthy fats (olive oil, avocados, coconut oil, nuts), and low sugar carbs.

If there is a produce section, look for the freshest (not wilted or bruised), most nutrient-dense items to either pack out or eat before leaving town. Amazingly, many of these tiny places sell avocados (great for potassium, fiber, antioxidants). Bags of spinach or carrots are also widely available and easy to pack out.

  • Calculate Your Calories

Before leaving the store, use your phone calculator to quickly get an estimate of the calories. This takes less than 5 minutes and can help you avoid overspending on (and carrying) food you don’t need and/or assure you that you have enough if you’re feeling uncertain.

For the amount of calories you need each day, that will take a bit of experimentation, but use this calculator (or something similar) to get in the ballpark, and adjust from there depending on terrain, climate, and whether you’re losing a bunch of weight or not. Add up the calories in your basket and divide by the number of days you plan to be out. Voila. If you want to go above and beyond, calculate your macros to be sure you have the right ratios of fat, protein, and carbs. This would likely be easiest by entering the foods into a free app, such as MyFitnessPal.

tiny town healthy resupply

What I Chose in McD for my 5-Day Resupply

My calorie goal for 5 days early in the trip was about 11,500, or 2,300 per day. Here’s what I found in the convenience store. A couple items, where noted, were leftover from my last box, but these calories could have been substituted with other bars or trail mix or another avocado from the c-store.

1 lb bag Tortilla Chips=1500 calories

1 lb whole carrots=150 calories

1 large avocado=300 calories

1 apple=100 calories

Dehydrated Refried Beans=300 calories

2 Coconut Oil packets (leftover from my last resupply)=240 calories

3 coconut-greens-collagen smoothie mixes (leftover from last resupply)=600 calories

3 Kates/Fourpoints bars (leftover from last resupply)=900 calories

3 Granola packets (leftover from last resupply)=750 calories

4 tuna pouches=300 calories

1 lb peanut butter=2600 calories

3 bags of fruit/seed/nut trail mix=2300 calories

Chocolate Bar=600 calories

Pepperoni=800 calories

Salami=700 calories

Electrolyte drink mix=50 calories

Kombucha (drank in town)=80 calories

total= ~12,200 calories

I usually pack just a little bit extra, such as a couple bars, for calories in case I’m hungrier than expected or take longer to reach the next town than expected.

As you can see, it’s not ‘perfect’ in terms of being organic, super high quality food, but it covers my nutritional bases, and it’s far from the typical pop-tarts/snickers/doritos resupply that could be purchased from the same store.

Even when options are limited, you can still make good choices that will fuel you for optimal energy and endurance!

 

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Coconut Walnut Cookies

coconut walnut cookies

I don’t eat many cookies, but when I do, I’m looking for high fat, low sugar snacks that pack well for long days in the mountains.

I’ve been hiking 14ers a lot on the weekends this summer and keeping a batch of these coconut walnut cookies in the freezer has been key to getting me out the door quickly with healthy fuel in tow. I throw a few of these in my food bag, along with some nuts, and I’m out the door. I like knowing that I have a clean, home-made snack that’s going to fuel me for the day. No more processed, sugary, chewy bars.

coconut walnut cookies

These cookies can be whipped up in about 30 minutes, including bake time, and they are gluten free and dairy free. The high fat content keeps me satiated on long hikes.

They are definitely less sweet than your average cookie, having just a hint of sweetness from the honey. In addition to the high fat content, the cinnamon also adds a blood sugar balancing effect. The sea salt on top replaces minerals lost through sweat and, well, it just tastes delicious. I like to have big chunks of walnuts in mine, but you could grind the walnuts to a finer consistency. Alternatively, you could substitute other nuts or seeds there.

I believe I found the original version of these on a keto forum and then adjusted it to suit my needs. If anyone knows the original source, please feel free to comment below.

coconut walnut cookie

Coconut Walnut Cookies

1/3 cup hemp seeds

1/2 cup shredded coconut, unsweetened

3 large eggs

1/2 cup coconut flour (or almond flour)

1/4 cup coconut oil, melted (or ghee or grass-fed butter)

2 teaspoons cinnamon (or pumpkin pie spice mix)

1/2 cup walnuts, toasted, chopped

1/8 teaspoon himalayan salt

1/8 cup honey

Mix all ingredients together in mixing bowl. Portion 1-2 Tablespoon size balls onto a parchment-lined cookie sheet. Top with coarse sea salt.

Bake at 325*F for 12-15 minutes, until lightly golden brown.

cookie batter

cookies

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How to Eliminate Sugar Cravings for Good

wind river hiking

“How do you make desserts all day and not want to eat it all?” Working as a baker and pastry chef over the past handful of years, this is one of the most common questions I’m asked. And to be honest, it used to be a lot more tempting to snack on the sugary treats that were around me all day. However, now that I’ve learned to tame my sugar cravings and rely on fat for fuel, it’s easy to steer clear of sweets. It’s not that I have iron-clad willpower–I just rarely crave sugar anymore.

sugar

Eschewing candy and quick-burning carbs in favor of whole foods provides more consistent energy and endurance. It’s one thing to know this, but when it comes to putting it into practice, it can be a struggle to break the sugar habit and combat cravings.

If you identify yourself in any of these statements, you might be experiencing blood sugar imbalances, and you’ll likely benefit from keeping your sugar cravings in check.

  • You get hungry an hour after eating
  • You’re jittery and light-headed if you miss a meal or snack
  • You crave sweets after a meal
  • You need sugar and/or caffeine for quick energy
  • You get ‘hangry’ and hunger comes on immediately
  • Life without sugar sounds unbearable

Blood sugar swings result in that post-lunch slump and the inability to maintain energy for a long day in the mountains (or at the office). Blood sugar dysregulation can also have a host of other negative physiological consequences, including increased inflammation and oxidative stress, and decreased liver detoxification.

What this means in real life for the endurance athlete is increased fatigue, decreased endurance, slower recovery, and being more prone to injury and illness.

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colorado trail

The key to balanced blood sugar is stepping off the sugar roller-coaster. Here are the primary approaches I’ve used to transition from relying on sugar for quick energy to the ability to go from meal to meal with steady energy.

  • Stay Hydrated

Whether on trail or off, start your day with at least a liter of water. Add sea salt and lemon, if it’s available, for a boost in minerals and energy. Drinking water before eating breakfast or a sugary snack ensures that you’re not confusing hunger for thirst. Staying hydrated also helps you avoid unnecessary blood sugar swings, keeping you from craving more sugar.

  • Get Enough Sleep

The amount and quality of sleep you get directly impacts your hormones. Your hormones impact every system in your body. In terms of blood sugar, a decrease in sleep causes higher cortisol, which results in higher blood sugar, which drives up insulin, which causes cravings for simple carbohydrates. Eating the simple carbs further drives up blood sugar and insulin, which further drives up cortisol, creating a vicious cycle.

journal stress reduction

  • Reduce Stress

Stress can come in many forms and it impacts your body negatively whether it’s real or perceived, physical or emotional. It could be stress from a fight with your partner or stress from walking 20+ miles per day. The result is higher levels of cortisol. As described in the previous tip, higher cortisol leads to higher blood sugar, which leads to higher insulin, which leads to even more cortisol, and round and round it goes. Find stress reduction techniques which work for you, such as meditation or journaling.

  • Eat a High Protein Breakfast

As this study indicates, eating a higher protein breakfast can decrease levels of ghrelin, a hunger-stimulating hormone. It also slows stomach emptying, which means you stay satiated longer and have more consistent energy. This keeps you from reaching for those simple carbs an hour after breakfast. A commonly recommended regimen is 30 grams of protein within 30 minutes of waking.

salad

  • Eat Balanced Meals

A balanced meal is one which contains protein, healthy fat, and fiber. This will keep your blood sugar levels and hormones stable. You’ll have consistent energy and stay satiated between meals. Examples of balanced meals on trail include 1) a smoothie with greens powder (fiber), whey powder (protein), and hemp seeds (fat, fiber) or 2) rehydrated black beans (fiber, protein), chicken (protein), and olive oil (fat).

  • Consume Minerals and Electrolytes

Cravings for sugar can be masking mineral deficiencies. Chromium and Vanadium have been shown to affect glucose metabolism and the action of insulin. Magnesium affects the production of insulin, cortisol, adrenaline, and glucagon–hormones which impact blood sugar. Consider a product to add trace minerals to your water. Use an electrolyte replacement powder or make your own. Add pink sea salt, which contains over 80 minerals, to your food and water.

  • Boost Gut Health

This study on how gut microbes influence eating behaviors indicates that supporting a healthy level of microbial diversity can have a plethora of positive results, from decreased cravings to increased immunity and neurotransmitter production. Support your gut by eating more soluble fiber from sources such as legumes, veggies, and nuts. Also eat more probiotic-containing foods, such as yogurt and sauerkraut, or take a high-quality supplement.

Sustainable behavior change and new habits are formed gradually. Incorporate the above suggestions one by one and you’ll notice that your cravings for sugar and other simple carbs are drastically reduced. If you do still find yourself wanting to reach for something sweet, choose natural sources of sugar, such as fruit. The fiber slows digestion and the rise in blood sugar. Pair sweets with protein and fat to buffer the insulin and blood sugar response.

When you’re no longer relying on sugar for quick hits of energy, you’ll find yourself with more consistent energy throughout the day and fewer cravings. You’ll likely consume less food overall, thereby allowing you to carry less food on your adventures. You can miss a meal without becoming jittery, shaky, or angry. Perhaps best of all, you’ll have better metabolic resiliency and improved overall health in the long run.

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Paleo Granola

trail

This granola is super simple to make. It’s quick (less than an hour including bake time) and the ingredients are easy to find in any supermarket.  A little bit keeps me satisfied and full of energy for a long day in the mountains.

I like to make a batch of this to have on hand as an easy on-the-go snack for long day hikes and backpacking trips. It’s full of healthy fats and protein. It’s free of gluten, grains, dairy, and refined sugar. It’s calorie-dense, healthy, and delicious. Plus, it’s easy to omit or swap out ingredients depending on what’s in your kitchen!

granola

Paleo Granola

*free of gluten, grains, dairy, refined sugar

1 cup (4.5 oz) chopped pecans
3 cups (6 oz) coarse coconut flakes
1.5 ( 6 oz) cups sliced almonds
1 cup (6oz) pumpkin seeds
1/2 cup (4 oz) sesame seeds
1/2 cup (3 oz) sunflower seeds
1/8 cup (0.75 oz) chia seeds
1/4 cup (1 oz) hemp hearts
1 tsp sea salt (Pink Himalayan is my favorite)
1 tablespoon pumpkin pie spice (blend of nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice, cloves)

1/2 cup (4 oz) grass-fed butter (or olive oil or coconut oil)
1/2 cup (6.5 oz) honey

Mix all the dries together. Melt honey and butter, and mix into dries. Spread onto parchment lined cookie sheet.

Bake 25 min at 300 or until lightly golden brown. Be careful not to overbake! This can happen quickly.

Allow granola to cool,  and break into clusters of whatever size you like. Add in dried fruit, such as blueberries or cranberries, if desired.

Store in glass jar at room temp for up to 10 days.

Yum!

granola

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How to Eat Healthy on a Thru-Hike

hiker eating

Of the many tasks hikers must think about before a long distance hike, food is at the top of the list.

Where will you resupply? How much food will you need? What will you eat? How do you choose which food to carry?

Either because they see no other option or because they don’t see the benefits of choosing healthier foods, many hikers settle on the standard diet of highly-processed packaged foods by default.

In this video, I give you a glimpse into what a sample day of eating might look like on trail for hikers who prefer simple to prepare, whole food options for increased energy, faster recovery, and better endurance.

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Trail Food Makeover: How to Eat for Optimal Energy & Endurance

Besides gear, there are few other topics hikers like to discuss as much as food. The ins and outs of resupplying are often one of a hiker’s primary concerns before embarking on any long distance trail. In this 2 part series, we break down the before and after diet changes to optimize performance, as well as compare cost, calorie density, and overall nutrition.

This ‘trail food makeover’ is a collaboration between Chris and Katie. In 2017, Chris hiked the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) eating wh

at most would consider a typical ‘thru-hiker’ diet (i.e. cheap, highly-processed foods). How did he feel? He had days where he felt great, and days where he felt completely fatigued, especially towards the end of the hike. Chris recalls one particularly rough day:

It was barely noon, and he felt lethargic, like he was in “zombie-mode”. He kept pushing through, but finally had to stop for an early dinner around 4 pm. He gorged himself because he was so hungry.

That day was an eye-opener, and he thought, “Man, I’m not doing something right here.” He wasn’t sure whether his resupplies contained enough calories, he lost a lot of weight, and by the end of the trail he was feeling worn down. Read more about his hike here.

Enter Katie. As a nutritionist, health coach, and fellow long distance hiker, Katie understands the specific concerns of thru hikers and the physical demands of a long distance hike on the body. After working through adrenal fatigue and autoimmune issues herself, Katie now helps other hikers fuel for optimal energy, endurance and performance with meal planning, personalized coaching, and through her website.

continental divide trail

Heading into the 2018 hiking season, Chris knew he needed to revamp his trail diet to have the energy necessary for hiking big miles and climbing peaks. His goal was to eat for sustained, consistent energy throughout the day, and to make sure he was getting enough calories, and the right kind of calories, for long term health.

In this post, Chris breaks down what his diet looked like on the CDT, and Katie adds insight into what he could change to eat for improved energy, endurance, and optimal performance.

Chris:

In April of 2017 I was brand new to thru-hiking. I planned to thru-hike the CDT and my preparations were constantly on my mind. One of my biggest concerns was resupply. Would I have to send myself resupply boxes? How much food would I need? What would I eat? What foods would last on trail?

The logistics of food resupply quickly sorted themselves out once I was actually on trail. I spoke to fellow thru hikers who had way more experience than I did. I pieced together bits of their resupply strategies to create my own. (Nobody I met ate what might be considered a “healthy” trail diet). Before long I was carrying a food bag of what might be considered a thru hiker’s traditional resupply: Snickers, cheese, summer sausage, rice sides, chips of varying kinds, and candy.

After 2,000+ miles of hiking, I had dialed in my food plan.  Below is what I ate in a typical day on trail.

Katie:

Remember, you don’t have to completely overhaul your diet all at once. Nor do you have to give up all your favorite foods. Even small improvements, substitutions, and tweaks can make a big impact on your health and how you feel. Below are my suggestions for how Chris can meet his energy goals by adjusting his diet.

continental divide trail desert

Breakfast

Chris:

I typically start my day around 5:30-6:00 am. The night before I usually filled a powerade bottle ¾ of the way full with water, add an instant coffee pouch and a Swiss Miss hot chocolate pouch, then give it a good shake. I’d wake up to a nice, cool, caffeinated drink in the morning.  

I’d also eat a 20-gram protein bar from either Power Bar or Gatorade. This temporarily eased my immediate hunger upon waking. I’d also eat a caffeine-containing Clif Bar (Mint Chocolate or Toffee Buzz). Another part of my morning food intake became cookies, most often Nutter Butters!

Here was the breakfast breakdown:

  • Swiss Miss Hot Chocolate Packet
  • Starbucks Via Instant Coffee Packet
  • Either a Power Bar or Gatorade Bar containing 20g of protein
  • Clif Bar containing caffeine
  • 5-6 Nutter Butter cookies

Katie:

When eating to sustain energy levels throughout the day, I find that many hikers feel best starting the day with fat and protein. By eating a lot of sugar first thing in the morning, you may feel an initial surge of energy as glucose enters the bloodstream, but you’ll soon experience a “crash” as insulin shuttles glucose into cells and blood glucose levels rapidly decline. This is experienced as bonking, fatigue, and hitting the wall. For more sustained energy, consider fat and protein, which do not spike glucose and insulin levels as much, thereby giving you longer-lasting energy without the crash.

For Chris, I suggest cutting back on the sugar at breakfast and increasing healthy fats. By healthy fat, I’m referring to saturated fat and unsaturated fat from whole foods, as opposed to the harmful trans fats found in many commercial products.

Chris can keep his instant coffee drink, but consider having it black, with powdered full fat coconut milk, or even with just half the Swiss Miss packet. He’s doing great by eating a bar with at least 20g of protein first thing. This will help satiate him. Ideally, if he can find one with fewer processed ingredients, he can further reduce inflammation. Finally, rather than reaching for artificial energy with the caffeine Clif Bars and sugary cookies, Chris could save himself stress on his adrenals, and fuel with healthy fats instead.

Makeover:

hiker eating

Snacks/Lunch

Chris:

I’ll start by saying I never had a specific lunch-type meal. Instead, I carried several snacks to munch on throughout the day during several short breaks, rather than taking a longer lunch break. So, from the time I broke down camp until the time I stopped to cook dinner, it was all about a variety of snack foods!

Here is what I snacked on:

  • Chips
    • Ranch Doritos
    • Pringles
    • Cheetos
    • Fritos
    • Frito Twists
  • Bars
    • Nature Valley
    • Power Bars
    • Pro Bars
    • Beef Jerky
    • Slim Jims

Katie:

Most of Chris’s snacks are highly-processed foods, consisting of simple carbs. Many of these foods have preservatives, artificial colorings, trans fats, and high fructose corn syrup, which can all create inflammation. This leads to greater fatigue, as the body tries to keep up with the physical demands of hiking all day coupled with the demands of combating chronic inflammation. Also, relying solely on simple carbs without adequate protein and healthy fats will keep Chris on the blood sugar roller coaster of energy swings.

Snacking throughout the day can be a great way to maintain energy, and carbohydrates are essential for fueling a long distance hike; however, I’d suggest choosing more whole food sources, and pairing them with protein, fat, and fiber for stable blood sugar. For chips, look for varieties with less than 5 ingredients, ideally without vegetable oils, such as canola (though that can be hard to find). For jerky, look for grass-fed sources, raised without antibiotics, with no added nitrates, MSG, or gluten.

Makeover:

  • Other
    • Granola, ideally homemade (higher in nuts/seeds, low in added sugars)
    • Nut/seed butters, such as peanut, almond, sunflower, without added sugars or oils
    • Dried Fruit
    • Nuts & Seeds
    • Homemade trail mix, with dried fruit, nuts, seeds, coconut, chocolate chips, etc. (Go down the bulk bin aisle and choose your favorites for endless variety)

trail

Dinner

Chris:

I would tend to stop and cook my one hot meal of the day around 5:30pm. I often ate a Knorr rice side or Idahoan dehydrated potatoes with chunks of cheese and summer sausage. After dinner I’d continue to hike on and treat myself to some candy when I set up my camp for the night.

My Usual Dinner Options:

  • Various Flavors of Rice Sides
  • Various Flavors of Pasta Sides
  • Various Flavors of Idahoans
  • Cheese
  • Summer Sausage
  • Skittles

Katie:
Chris could upgrade his dinners by looking for less processed versions of these staples, which would help keep inflammation lower. Consuming carbs at the end of the day helps restore muscle glycogen, so he’ll be ready to hike again the following day. Having protein with those carbs can further aid in restoring muscle glycogen. Aiming for a 3:1 or 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein works well for many athletes. Additionally, I would suggest adding in a healthy fat, such as olive oil or coconut oil, to help replenish calories and aid in satiation. Chris’s diet also contains virtually no fruits or veggies, so I would suggest adding dehydrated veggies to his dinner and/or a greens powder sometime during his day. Dinner is also a great place to add in spices, which can boost the overall nutrition and antioxidant content of his meal. Finally, I would swap out the highly processed skittles, for a dessert such as dried fruit or dark chocolate, which are loaded with the antioxidants your body desperately needs to repair.

Makeover:

  • Rice noodles (just the noodles, without the preservatives)
  • Couscous
  • Instant Potato Flakes (just the potatoes, without preservatives, like this one)
  • Dehydrated Veggies
  • Cheese
  • Summer Sausage (grass fed sources)
  • Coconut Oil
  • Olive Oil
  • Spices such as garlic powder, curry powder, turmeric, cumin, and cayenne
  • Dark Chocolate  (85% cacao or higher)
  • Dried fruit

In part 2, we’ll discuss how these resupplies compare in terms of calories, macronutrients, and nutrition. We’ll discuss the importance of considering both calorie dense and nutrient dense foods and compare common options. We’ll look at the weight of each of these resupplies, and finally, we’ll address the all-important concern of price and budget when it comes to the standard thru-hiker diet versus the healthier thru-hiker diet.

To follow Chris’s progress this year as he takes on the JMT and LT, subscribe to his blog here and follow him on Facebook and Instagram.

Download a free copy of Katie’s “Eat for Endurance” ebook here for more ideas on how to eat for sustained energy. Learn more about her private coaching, meal planning services, and read more of her articles here. Follow her adventures in the kitchen and in the outdoors on Facebook and Instagram.

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Coconut Maca Energy Bites

maca bites

I recently prepared an unusual resupply box for a friend who is currently thru-hiking. This was not your average resupply box full of ramen, snickers, and pop-tarts though. This box focused on performance-enhancing ingredients. He’s nearing the end of a 2200-ish mile route, so his body is getting tired. His primary concerns are enhancing recovery and optimizing sleep. These maca coconut energy bites were a key component of the goodies I sent him.

Food is always the first line when it comes to optimizing performance. However, during a demanding endeavor, such as a thru-hike, supplementation can certainly support the mind and body in performing better.

There are many supplements that came to mind when I began brainstorming around endurance, recovery, and sleep. Note: Since I am not a doctor, I don’t prescribe, treat, or diagnose. However, I do know what I’ve seen work for myself and others in the past.

I included several items in the box, but an area I focused on in particular was a class of herbs called adaptogens. Adaptogens have become one of those buzz words in the holistic health space as of late, but they’ve been studied since the 1960s and herbalists have used them for decades. Simply put, adaptogens aid the body in adapting to stress. From the journal Pharmaceuticals, “studies on animals and isolated neuronal cells have revealed that adaptogens exhibit neuroprotective, anti-fatigue, antidepressive, anxiolytic, nootropic and CNS stimulating activity.”

In addition to an adaptogen tincture I included in his box, I was also interested in including Maca root (Lepidium Peruvianum Chacon). While more clinical trials are needed, Maca has a long history of traditional use. It’s a Peruvian staple food grown in the harsh, high plateaus of the Andes. It’s been used to improve stamina and endurance, balance hormones, and improve immunity. It’s also believed to be an aphrodisiac and improve libido. Due to these properties, many consider Maca to be an adaptogen.

Maca can be purchased in powder form and lends itself easily to including into foods. It has a pleasing nutty flavor, and it’s packed with vitamins and minerals, so it boosts the nutrition of any food to which it’s added.

These bites were designed to be energy-dense and durable. They are a convenient and tasty way to get in nutrient-packed maca, as well as healthy fats from the hemp hearts, coconut oil, and walnuts. The dates provide sweetness and quick energy. Due to the fats, protein, and fiber, they’ll boost your energy without the sugar crash afterwards.

Maca Coconut Energy Bites

Makes 11x30g bites

  • 1 cup pitted medjool dates
  • 1/2 cup walnuts
  • 1/2 cup hemp hearts
  • 1/2 cup dried unsweetened coconut
  • 2 tbsp organic maca powder
  • 1 Tbl coconut oil
  • 1/4 tsp sea salt
  • 1 Tbl cacao powder
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract

Blend all ingredients in a food processor until mixture is well blended and creates a soft dough. If dough is not coming together, add a bit more oil or a tiny bit of water.

maca bites

Roll dough into 30 gram balls (a hefty tablespoon), roll them in coconut and put into an air tight container. Store in the freezer until you’re ready to eat.

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maca bites

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