When you’re getting ready for a hike, do you shop for energy bars and fill your hydration pack with water? Do you stock ready-to-eat meals in your garage for years and then feed them to your kids on camping trips? I do, and I have an advanced degree in public health. Even for experts, it can be hard to tell the good nutritional advice from the bad. I enlisted Julia Delves of Trailside Kitchen, a holistic chef and nutritionist who runs a four-week program dedicated to helping outdoorsy folk improve how they eat, to help me uncover five common myths about eating on the trail.
Myth: All carbs are created equal. All proteins are created equal. All fats are created equal.
Reality: “Food was naturally designed in its perfect form to be easily absorbed. Stop messing with it!” Delves says.
One of the first challenges Delves gives to participants in her four-week program is to learn how their bodies process natural whole carbohydrates differently than their processed variants.
“Eating refined carbohydrates is like trying to keep a bonfire going all night with newspaper,” she says. “Eating unrefined complex carbohydrates, like brown rice or quinoa, is like using large logs. They burn better and longer, give off better heat, and improve your overall enjoyment.”
With fats, Delves explains that “throughout history, our omega-6 to omega-3 ratio was about 1 until the industrial revolution, when vegetable oils began to take over. Today, that ratio is about 20:1” That promotes inflammation, which means slower recovery from big days. Fight back by consuming omega-3-rich foods like avocados, bone broth, flax oil, nut butter, olives, and seeds. Avoid hydrogenated oils, trans fats, shortening.
Animal welfare aside, there’s evidence that grass-fed beef and pasture-raised poultry and eggs have higher levels of omega-3s too. If you are vegetarian, keep in mind that most plant proteins are incomplete, meaning that they don’t have all the amino acids that our bodies need. Even quinoa and soy, often cited as complete proteins, lack some amino acids in sufficient quantities. They key is variety: eat different kinds of beans, grains, legumes, and nuts over the course of a few days.
One thing you can go ahead and skip: fish oil. "Our bodies can make EPA and DHA from the essential omega-3 fats found in foods like flax and chia seeds, walnuts, and olive and canola oil,” says Daniel Freidenreich, Professor of Health & Exercise Science at Rowan University.
Myth: When you are thirsty, drink water (or Gatorade).
Reality: When you are thirsty, drink water mixed with salt, or electrolyte drinks like those from Hammer Nutrition or GU. The extra salt will not only help your body retain water, but also help ward off potentially deadly hyponatremia in hot weather. “On average, people lose about one gram of sodium per liter of sweat,” says Friedenreich. Salt is critical because it maintains your blood pressure, balances fluids, transmits nerve impulses and activates muscles. Mix in 3.5 grams per liter of water; You can increase the palatability by flavoring it with sliced fruit like strawberries or oranges. When it comes to bottled sports drinks, be cautious: Many contain lots of sugar, but very little salt.
Myth: Energy, nutrition, or protein bars are good sources of fuel.
Reality: In general, energy bars are mostly good sources of sugar. That’s not necessarily a bad thing on a hard trail run or ski tour—it burns quickly, providing a readily-available source of energy—but it can cause blood sugar to spike and crash.
Complicating things further, sugar in bars isn’t always labeled as such. Keep your eyes peeled for ingredients like brown rice syrup, tapioca syrup, agave syrup, and dried cane syrup. Delves recommends that hikers looking for a quick energy boost instead turn to natural sources of sugar like fruit, honey, and maple syrup instead.
If you’re looking for a simple snack that won’t cause you to crash, nutritionist Georgine Leung recommends a sandwich: spread some peanut butter or other type of nut butter between two slices of wheat bread. If you do decide to go with minimally-processed bars, consider Epic Bars and Patagonia Provisions’ Fruit and Almond Bar.
Myth: Ready-to-eat meals are nutritious and have super-long shelf lives.
Reality: It depends on how the food is preserved. Dehydrated meals are easy and cheap, but they lose nutrients during the heating process. Freeze-dried meals, on the other hand, maintain most of their nutritional value—sometimes more than fresh ingredients that have been sitting in the fridge. They have a significantly longer shelf-life than dehydrated foods, since the process maintains the structure of the food’s cellular walls.
If you’re eating freeze-dried, you have options. AlpineAire uses both freeze-dried and dehydrated ingredients. Backpacker's Pantry states that "the first time the ingredients are cooked together is when boiling water is poured into the bag." Mountain House fully cooks their meals before freeze drying, which the company claims better preserves the meals’ flavor.
In terms of longevity, freeze-dried meals can last as long as 30 years. Contrast that with MREs, which average about three years “depending on environmental conditions – the cooler it is, the longer they last.” Leung says, “MREs are designed as a quick fix for energy needs under extreme conditions, and are not meant for long-term consumption. The nutrition profile fluctuates from meal to meal. Dietary fiber has been a concern for MRE meals, a lack of which can lead to problems such as constipation.”