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Lighten Up: Losing Weight by Hiking

Make one simple resolution–to hike more in 2011–and we guarantee you'll lose that spare tire around the middle. Here's the proof, the plan, and the inspiration.

“Anybody want to finish off this tabouleh?” Joan Hennes holds open a zip-top bag full of salad. We had just climbed down from the summit of Emory Peak, the highest mountain in the park, and rewarded our peakbagging effort with a lunch of wraps filled with smoked Gouda, tuna, and sun-dried tomato. A bag of beef jerky makes the rounds, but nobody seems much interested in last night’s leftovers.
Dan waves her off. “I’m trying to lose some weight here,” he explains.
“OK, what are you craving?” Susan asks the group.
“I wish I was craving something,” says Dan.

Despite our self-imposed calorie deficit, hunger has not become the trip killer some feared. Partly, that’s because altitude and extreme physical exertion can suppress appetite in the first few days of a trip. And trail food, even flavorful meals like Silberberg’s stir-fry, is usually a far cry from what most of us eat at home.

My lack of hunger while subsisting on Fatpacker rations makes me wonder if other factors are at play. My stomach growled some, but why wasn’t I ravenous? After the trip, I consulted Michael Lowe, a leading researcher in the psychology of hunger. He says your stomach alone doesn’t dictate hunger. Lowe, a professor of psychology at Drexel University, points to two overlapping controls in the brain that govern how much we eat: the homeostatic and hedonic hunger systems. Homeostatic hunger is plain old empty-tummy hunger, and is activated by a drop in blood glucose. Hedonic hunger is an overdrive system triggered by the presence of food itself, or the pleasure it promises. Anyone who’s overindulged on Ben & Jerry’s understands hedonic hunger. “The look, smell, and taste of delicious food; negative emotions like stress; what  people around you are doing—these are stimuli that evoke eating for reasons other than biological need,” says Lowe.

By extracting our group of Fatpackers from what obesity experts refer to as our “food environment,” by releasing us from work and home pressures, and by occupying our minds with a whole fleet of new sights and sensations, might Silberberg have tapped another benefit of backpacking that’s just as important as the calorie and fat burning? We’ve unplugged our hedonic hunger systems, leaving us to grapple with real, honest hunger and nothing else.

When I describe Fatpacking to Lowe, he sees its potential. “That could be an excellent way to lose weight. You have the absence of food cues, and the structure of eating has been handed over to a leader, so the decision to eat is less in your control,” he says.

Under the guise of backpacking with newfound friends in beautiful, remote locations, Silberberg puts into action all of the advice that Jane Brody, the Mayo Clinic, and countless other health nags wish we’d follow: limit portion size, dine on whole grains and vegetables supplemented with lean protein, drink plenty of water, avoid the empty calories in sugary beverages and alcohol, snack healthily, and limit sweet desserts. Add a mellow vibe, so it never feels like weight-loss boot camp, and you wonder when the reality TV show starts.  

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