Food for the thru-hiker or endurance athlete?

“I’m still not comfortable recommending that people eat saturated fat with abandon, but it’s clear to me that sugar, flour, and oxidized seed oils create inflammatory effects in the body that almost certainly bear most of the responsibility for elevating heart disease risk.” Andrew Weil

Malchus, B. Mom cooking at KOA. Summer 1970. Author’s personal collection

When I told my physician my plans about thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, she wasn’t concerned about my increased exercise.  No, her focus centered on diet and nutrition.  Bottom line, my doctor knew about the thru-hiker’s diet of wild abandonment to consume quick-digesting carbohydrates (i.e., candy, pop (midwestern for soda), and honeybuns).  I agreed with her that the traditional thru-hiker diet lacked the major elements of the Mediterranean diet I am on (i.e., fruits, vegetables and complex carbohydrates).  She listened to my literature research on “thru-hiking poor-quality, high-calorie diet on the body’s arteries” and the movement to change the diet for thru-hikers.  However, this didn’t calm down her concern.  She wrote a prescription to see a licensed dietitian.  

Cardiovascular disease snakes through both sides of my family tree.  After my grandpa had a heart attack in the early seventies, Mom did a diet and exercise makeover in our home. Fish, lean meat, fruit, and vegetables increased at our table.  An organic garden was planted in the backyard to help bring down the grocery costs for vegetables.  My siblings and I were signed up for soccer and swimming; and we biked not only to save gas money, but for exercise.  I believe these changes delayed my father’s first trip to the Cleveland Clinic’s Cardiology Unit, and ultimately influenced my decision to become a public health educator. 

During college and my early career, I became caught up in the wellness movement.  The focus linked wellness with the health of mind, body and spirit.  When it comes to food, what you used to fuel your body affects your health.  Eating a diet of junk food showed one had an increased risk for obesity and chronic diseases like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers.  Studies also showed this type of fuel also has an effect on your overall mental health.  No matter how much you exercise, food affects the performance and the places you can’t see.

My doctor had a right to be concerned.

Apples and Bananas By Raffi Ken Whiteley

“I like to eat, eat, eat apples and bananas

I like to eat, eat, eat apples and bananas


I like ate, ate, ate epples and benenes

I like ate, ate, ate epples and benenes”

Excerpt song lyrics. See Raffi singing Apples and Bananas 


Pre-thru-hiking Worries: Food

People talk about their pre-thru-hiking worries.  My worry?  I don’t want my arteries becoming clogged by cholesterol from the thru-hiking diet.  Why?  I have other Post Pandemic Adventures on my list to cross off.     

The thru-hiker diet has haunted my mind since planning this adventure.  I found a great many hiking videos providing instructions on getting into shape for a thru-hike.  However, there were few hiking videos that talked about the diet and nutrition needed for getting up the mountains every day for six months.  So, I took matters into my own hands.  

My research expanded to include articles about the U.S. Olympic Athletes diets.  I believed that a thru-hiker had similar characteristics to an Olympian.  Each day, the thru-hiker puts in ten or more miles carrying a twenty-plus-pound backpack.  We shared the similar psychological characteristics of mental toughness, set and achieve goals, and an optimism.  Unlike thru-hikers these athletes’ diets changed from “Little Chocolate Donuts” (as satirized by John Belushi on SNL) to wholesome foods like chicken, fish, lean beef, eggs, lots of fruit, oatmeal, and other whole grains. For example, Ashton Eaton, a decathlete, avoids sugar and his diet is high in protein.  In an interview, Eaton stated, “because my competitions are two days long, I eat throughout. I eat a massive breakfast each day of competition. I pack a lot of protein into my body because I’m going to be expending tons of energy over 10 to 12 hours. I usually have two cups of Greek yogurt with tons of granola, as well as eggs, bacon, and toast.”  

Three individuals kept appearing in my search engine.  They are trying to make changes in diet and nutrition of the endurance hiker: Aaron Owens Mayhew, MS, RDN, CD, Katie Gerber, and Chef Corsco.  Their work is influencing Mr Rook and my meal and snack planning.  These thru-hiker food champions have also influenced what will be in our resupply boxes for the seven food deserts and six “chopped” boxes.  

Note:  There is a recent graduate from (THE) Ohio State University in sports nutrition…Katie Milesky, diet and nutrition of the thru-hiker was part of her graduate work.  She is a 2023 NOBO and trek blogger.

Malchus Stafa, B. Mr. Rook cooking up ramen. July 2022. Author’s personal collection

Food Deserts.

Definitionally, a food desert is an area that has limited access to affordable and nutritious food (i.e., a grocery store).  Distance plays a factor for an area to be identified as a food desert.  People think about food deserts as an urban problem, but it is also a rural issue.  Folks who live in rural areas more than ten miles from a supermarket are considered living in a food desert. In urban areas it is two miles.

Thru-hikers get to walk in the shoes of the residents of trail towns. Meaning, a thru-hiker often doesn’t have transportation to travel very far to a grocery store.  Walking twenty miles round trip is a lot with your backpack.  It quickly becomes evident that purchasing healthy food is a dilemma not only for the thru-hiker, but also the trail town residents.  

Mr. Rook has identified seven food deserts.  Our friends M&B are sending a fully stocked resupply to those places.  There are six other places spread out roughly evenly where we will be sent “chopped” boxes.


Chopped Box

Many of you are familiar with the Food Network’s TV show: Chopped.  It is a show where four chefs compete in a three-round contest.  Each round the chefs attempt to incorporate unusual combinations of ingredients into dishes that are later evaluated by a panel of three judges.  

Thru-hiker Chopped Boxes will be sent to us with a random bag of dehydrated beans and vegetables.  We will attempt to create breakfast, lunch and dinner meals with these ingredients by combining them with what we find at the grocery store.  We will be using the knowledge learned from Aaron Owens Mayhew, MS, RDN, CD, Katie Gerber, and Chef Corsco to provide for a nutritious meal.  

Note:  Our first Chopped Box arrives in Duncannon, PA.      



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Comments 6

  • Tim : Mar 28th

    Great post! Most long distance hikers still think their bodies will “burn off all the calories” and that they’ll not only get away with eating vast amounts of junk food but will thrive. When their hikes are over, they’re addicted to sugar in the worst way and many regain all their lost weight and descend into depression diabetes, metabolic syndrome and worse. I’m the rare triple crowner who actually studied biochemistry and human metabolism in grad school and applied what I learned to my trail diet. No added sugar. Lots of protein, etc. Vitamins from whole foods. I tend not to lose weight and always segue to jogging/running after a long hike. Your post does a tremendous service to the long distance hiking community if only some of them listen. Well done.

    • Beth Malchus Stafa : Mar 28th

      Thank you Tim for your comments. I really think we should create a movement that we thru hikers are really endurance athletes. And…we need to fuel our bodies as such.

  • CB : Mar 29th

    Outstanding! Motivational!

    • Beth Malchus Stafa : Mar 29th

      Thank you CB.

  • Kelly McCarthy : Mar 29th

    I’m 60 years old and run about 40 miles per week. I have problems with inflammation but manage it with diet. I cook and bake using the Shalane Flanagan cookbooks. There are some recipes that I will use for hiking including the ginger molasses granola/book 1, and turmeric pepitas/book 1. Both would work well in resupply boxes. Good luck!

    • Beth Malchus Stafa : Mar 29th

      Thank you Kelly for your resource. Mr. Rook and I use tumeric in our oatmeal for breakfast.


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