I realized after my recent post on backpacking diet that I did a great job outlining some of my diet choices for my fastpacking trips and a poor job of explaining why I chose the foods I do. I wanted to do a write-up explaining the backpacker’s diet so people could better understand what purpose it serves and how a diet loaded with empty calories is not unhealthy granted the context.
My backpacking diet serves a very specific purpose and addresses the most immediate concern: starvation. It focuses on macronutrient intake and finds the densest foods to obtain the most calories. Anything beyond that is fluff.
Several people have had genuine concerns for my health with lacking several micronutrients. To understand my diet you have to understand my take on nutrition which has evolved over four years of obtaining my Bachelor of Science degree in Human Nutrition, Foods and Exercise, my athletic endeavors, and my first year in medical school. The reality is, for someone like myself (healthy, non-obese, non-diabetic, active, financially stable), fluctuations in my diet have minimal impact on my health. This obviously is contrary to what every health food store and naturopathic website will tell you. They’ll say superfoods can make you and processed foods can break you. And we know from decades of research, for the populations that these stores and alternative-health practices are targeting, we simply aren’t heavily effected by antioxidant profiles and micronutrients. The American population is effected primarily by macronutrient intake. The primary reason nutritionists emphasize fruits and vegetables is not because the population deficient in vitamins A and C but because these are high satiety, low-calorie foods and our population is overwhelmingly overweight and obese.
High consumption of these healthy foods helps prevents weight gain. And for someone hiking ~40 miles a day, weight loss is the concern. Instead I look to find the foods that promote weight gain, the deceptive calories, the things that are easy to eat and poorly satiating. That includes candy, fried foods, dressings, cookies, salty snacks, etc. As I said before, the primary goal is to keep from starving. The method of preventing that is to eat foods that in a normal population cause weight gain and obesity.
All my nutrition professors rightly emphasized that there’s no such thing as a ‘bad’ food. They always stressed context for a diet which included goals, quantity, timing, health, etc. While my diet wouldn’t be appropriate in most other settings, for this particular adventure, it is quite possibly the only way to keep from becoming emaciated and deathly ill. Another issue my professors always emphasized is that someone burning 7000 calories a day can afford to eat more “empty” calories as a fraction of their diet than someone eating only 1500. What that is addressing is that micronutrient requirements only modestly increase with increasing energy needs.
The reality is, our diet, and the way we discuss nutrition is elitist and myopic. Different diets work for different people in different settings. To assume that the only diet is our own is ridiculous and arrogant. You don’t have to eat a textbook fruits and veggies, minimal empty calories diet every day. But if you’re morbidly obese, you honestly probably should. And I have to drop this in here because I’m so tired of seeing it: “natural” is a meaningless term, GMOs are not bad, “organic” is not any bit healthier, “superfoods” don’t exist, you’re more likely to die from excess than from deficiency, if you’re healthy you don’t need a multivitamin, preservatives are not inherently bad, and there’s no such thing as a universally healthy diet. I may have missed one or two but I think that covers most nutrition misconceptions.
To close, here is a quote from Brew Davis in his blog about his wife setting the Appalachian Trail thru-hike record in 46 days:
Jen and I practically took an oath to eat nothing but processed foods for the duration of the trip. I can picture Jen’s mom, and her Aunt Vee, and cousin Tori rolling their eyes right now. But the sad truth is, fruits and vegetables take too much time and energy to chew. They have a lot of sugar, but not enough calories so they’re kind of a waste of time on a hike like this. I’ve been trying to eat a banana or apple or something healthy every day. But the only fruit that Jen’s gotten is from fruit smoothies and the only vegetables she’s gotten are in potato chips.