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June 2003

Good News About Bad Food

Got burgers on the brain? Learn why some experts say it's okay to indulge.

After 54 miles of a 55-mile hike in the Grand Canyon, I’m an hour from my car. And I have just one thing on my mind. It’s not the jaw-dropping scenery. Or the 2,000 feet in elevation I have left to climb. Or even my 4-year-old son, Austin, who I miss terribly after a week away.

I want a cold beer. Really bad. All I can think about is wrapping my hands around a frosty, foam-topped glass and hoisting it to my sun-parched lips. It’s what propels me forward. And the crazy thing is, I don’t even like beer that much.

I’m hardly alone in such weird hankerings. In a recent poll, 66 percent of hikers said they crave not only beer, but also steaks, burgers, fries, and pizza after a long trip. In 1999, instructors with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) overwhelmingly voted to add more meat products into their backcountry diets.

What is it that makes us crave certain foods (or beverages) when we’re backpacking? For many of us, big helpings of junk food are a turnoff–until we’ve spent a few days on the trail. Then, we can’t wait to super-size that order of greasy, salty fries. Is this hunger an indication of a psychological imbalance? Or, worse, a nutritional one? To find out, we asked nutritionists, dietitians, even psychologists. Their answers will surprise you.

The Science Of Sweet-And-Salty

Most hikers are health-conscious sorts who forgo fatty, sugary, high-calorie foods in favor of lean meats, salads, and spring water. But our trail diets tend to be even more ascetic, which can wreak havoc on our impulses. So says Adam Drewnowski, Ph.D., director of the Nutritional Sciences Program at the University of Washington, who explains that abstinence intensifies the cravings that we normally manage with small, daily indulgences. “Food cravings arise to satisfy emotional needs, such as calming stress and reducing anxiety,” Dr. Drewnowski writes in a recent report in the journal Environmental Nutrition. “The foods that gratify typically contain fat or sugar, or both.”

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