Good News About Bad Food

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

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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.”

Certain foods, he says, can be as powerful as drugs. Dr. Drewnowski and others have identified an opiate-like effect when we eat high-fat, high-carb stuff like chocolate. Fat and carbohydrates (especially in the form of sugar) elevate serotonin, a chemical in the brain that regulates mood. But serotonin levels can plummet during periods of depression–and during long stretches of rigorous exercise. Which explains why jilted lovers and sweaty hikers both reach for a pint of Ben and Jerry’s.

But is serotonin the only thing driving our junk-food fantasies? We asked our experts if hikers might be craving a Hershey’s bar or bag of Fritos because our bodies aren’t getting enough of the nutrients those snacks contain. On this question, the jury is still out. Dr. Drewnowski calls the notion “complete nonsense,” but Mary Howley, a registered dietitian and backcountry nutrition counselor, disagrees. “Yes, fat and sugar are mood-improving comfort foods, but they also help us get up the trail,” she says. “The sugar provides quick energy to the brain, and the fat provides long-term energy to the muscles.”

Either way, you have a green light to eat junk. “The diet rules change when you’re backpacking,” says Marsha Beckerman, a registered dietitian who’s in charge of meal planning for more than 500 athletes at the University of Texas, Austin, and helps create menus for mountaineering expeditions. “Backpackers, like any endurance athletes, have permission to eat. There is no such thing as junk food if it helps get you up that hill.”

Beckerman recommends that people on a typical weeklong hike eat about 50 percent more than they do at home. That means you can–and should–consume fat in the form of nuts, peanut butter, and oils. “Fat is your friend on long hikes,” she says. “The wilderness is no place to skimp on calories, so take tuna that’s packed in oil, not water.”

NOLS is also trying to convince its students, normally a weight-conscious bunch, to embrace the idea of eating fat. “For a 3-week NOLS hiking or skiing course, we recommend a diet of 3,000 to 4,500 calories a day,” says Howley. She and Beckerman both emphasize the importance of variety, though, noting that only a combination of carbs, fat, and protein will provide the necessary energy and muscle recovery for a hard, mountain hike.

But what about the beer? “Obviously there’s no nutritional need,” laughs Howley. “But if it satisfies a craving that’s based on an emotional need to celebrate, then why not?”

Note: To purchase the 2002 NOLS Nutrition Field Guide ($15), call (307) 332-8800, or write to