The Danger of Relying on Faux Foods for Fuel

Hikers burn thousands of calories a day, so the quality of the food doesn’t matter, right?

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

When it comes to food on a long trail, the focus is usually on calories and palatability. Little attention is paid to the long-term impact of our food choices on our health and the environment.  I’ll outline 10 reasons to make real food your primary fuel for endurance endeavors, as well as simple steps for how to make the transition.

What are Faux Foods?

Before we can avoid them, we must know how to identify them.

Faux foods are:

  • Foods where real ingredients have been stripped out and replaced with substitutions.
  • Foods that are created in a lab rather than grown in soil.
  • Foods that have an ingredient label containing substances you can’t pronounce.
  • Foods that are produced in a way that’s destructive to the environment.

‘Faux foods’ may not be the most accurate descriptor, as the foods are not necessarily fake, but it’s a good catchall for these foods, and it’s catchier than ‘non-food junk’, so that’s what I’ve settled on.

real food backpacker

Photo by Keckeley Habel

What This Means for Hikers

It’s hard to imagine a diet worse in quality and nutritional benefits than the Standard American Diet (SAD), which is an obvious culprit in the U.S. obesity epidemic (affecting 1 in 3 adults) and a strong contributor to the current chronic disease crisis (affecting 1 in 2 adults).

But there is one diet that is arguably even worse, and that’s the standard Thru-Hiker diet. This diet consists primarily of heavily processed, packaged foods, which are loaded with preservatives, artificial ingredients, colorings, trans fats, and excess sugar. Of course, this way of eating developed because hikers need high calorie food, which is light, packable, and tasty, but many are unaware of the dangers of faux foods and the alternatives which exist.

While many hikers can get by on Snickers and Doritos for a few months with seemingly few consequences, junk food has real implications on your energy, your performance, and even the outcome of your hike.

PCT katiegerber.com

 

10 Reasons to Reconsider Your Resupply

1) You Are What You Eat

You’ve no doubt heard this before, but just let that sink in. What you eat literally becomes the components of your body. Do you want to be made up of artificial ingredients that were synthesized in a lab or would you prefer your cells to be made up of real, living things which grew from soil, sunlight, water, and air?

2) Inflammation

The full body inflammation caused by excess intake of faux foods makes us more susceptible to injury and illness. In 2017, injury and illness accounted for 17% of AT hikers quitting their thru-hike attempt. The main drivers of inflammation in a typical hiker diet are refined sugar and trans fats.

3) Gut Health

Intricately tied to inflammation is the health of the gut lining. Sugar and refined ingredients, as well as several food additives and preservatives, have been shown to disrupt the digestive system – especially when exposure is chronic. This also impairs absorption of the limited nutrients that are being taken in.

4) Slower Recovery

If your body is lacking in essential micronutrients, it takes longer to get back to full speed. Thru-hikers beat their bodies up daily, so fast recovery is key to feeling great day after day.

5) Increased Incidence of Cardiovascular Disease, Autoimmune Conditions, and Allergies

Faux foods are more likely to result in these long-term health conditions that will affect you long after you’re off the trail. Processed foods are also more likely to cause allergies.

6) Slower Wound Healing

Chronic inflammation suppresses your immune system, thereby causing slower wound healing. It’s not uncommon to endure small wounds on trail, and quick healing reduces the chances of developing a serious infection that could end a hike.  

7) Blood Sugar Balance and Bonking

Completing a long hike often requires long days. The key to having sustained energy and hiking big miles is maintaining balanced blood sugar by steering clear of highly-refined, processed foods.  

8) Mental Clarity & Motivation

It’s often said that thru-hiking success is 90% mental. Whether you agree with that or not, there’s no doubt that the mental game is a huge part of successfully completing your adventure. Steady blood sugar helps you make better decisions and stay motivated over the long haul.

9) Post-hike Depletion

Most hikers are ambitious people with big plans. Rather than ending your hike exhausted and burnt out, it’s possible to recover faster and be ready for your next adventure without having to spend months on the couch in front of the TV. Faux foods lack the nutrients and antioxidants that will help you bounce back faster.

10) Overeating and Carrying Extra Food

Faux foods often have plenty of calories, but are deficient in nutrients, leaving the body unsatisfied. This leads to endless hunger and results in carrying more food than you may actually need.

BONUS:

The environmental impact of our choices is something we all need to be aware of. Industrial, highly-processed, GMO-filled foods increase the profits of mega-corporations at the expense of the environment we love so much.

pollution

5 Ways to Avoid the Pitfalls of Faux Foods

When it comes to eating for endurance, and overall personal and planetary health, I tend to follow a credo more than a specific diet. I don’t like the word ‘diet’ because it conjures up ideas of strict rules and restriction, which is not what I’m suggesting. A credo is more of a set of principles that guide your actions and beliefs.

Think of your food choices as a continuum with a 100% Faux Food diet on one end and a 100% seasonal, organic, unprocessed, local (SOUL) diet on the other end. This framework helps me work towards making better choices when I can, but not getting so caught up in rules and ‘shoulds’ that I give up entirely.

Here are a few of the basic principles and how you can apply them to your next outdoor adventure.

1) Eat more whole, unprocessed foods on trail

Nuts, seeds, dried fruit, and dehydrated veggies are all great choices. There are lots of ideas online and you can also check out my free Eat for Endurance ebook for more ideas.

2) Read labels

This will help avoid excessive added sugar, trans fat, and additives like artificial sweeteners, high fructose corn syrup, sodium nitrate, sodium sulfate, food dyes, potassium bromate, and MSG.

3) Send resupply boxes to places with limited options

Don’t be stuck eating gas station food for a week because you didn’t plan ahead. You’ll feel gross and you’ll compromise your energy and performance.

4) Make up for micronutrient deficiencies in town

Choose fresh vegetables and salads instead of (or at least in addition to) pizza, burgers, and beer.

5) Make small changes

It doesn’t have to be an all or nothing approach. Here are some ideas:

Add in a greens powder, such as athletic greens, amazing grass, or organifi each day.This can make up for micronutrient deficiencies on a long hike.

Swap out some candy for dried fruit. If your body is craving quick energy, eating fruit will give you a quick dose of carbs, with enough fiber to maintain blood sugar balance, and without all the added junk. And there are SO MANY options: raisins, cranberries, apricots, blueberries, mango, banana, etc.

Look for chips and other crunchy/salty snacks with as few ingredients as possible. For example, compare the following:

  • Ingredients in Organic Tortilla Chips: organic corn, organic sunflower oil, salt.
  • Ingredients in Nacho Cheese Doritos: whole corn, vegetable oil (corn, soybean, and/or sunflower oil), salt, cheddar cheese (milk, cheese cultures, salt, enzymes), maltodextrin, whey, monosodium glutamate, buttermilk solids, romano cheese (part skim cow’s milk, cheese cultures, salt, enzymes), whey protein concentrate, onion powder, partially hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oil, corn flour, disodium phosphate, lactose, natural and artificial flavor, dextrose, tomato powder, spices, lactic acid, artificial color (including Yellow 6, Yellow 5, Red 40), citric acid, sugar, garlic powder, red and green bell pepper powder, sodium caseinate, disodium inosinate, disodium guanylate, nonfat milk solids, whey protein isolate, corn syrup solids.

http://www.personaltrainervancouver.com/adventures/attachment/hiking-stock-image/

Start slow and do what you can.

Even making a few small changes is a good step towards fueling yourself for performance and creating a better environment at the same time.

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Comments 18

  • michael sparks : Jan 29th

    Definitely worth the read. You added a new perspective on going stoveless which I thought was out of my reach. I’m heading out on the AT in April so it will be interesting to see what foods are available in smaller towns. Thank you for all the information and look forward to seeing the different results based on your suggestions.

    Reply
    • Katie : Jan 29th

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Michael! I’m glad you picked up some useful tips. Enjoy your AT hike!

      Reply
  • Lauren Hafley : Jan 30th

    Thank you for writing this. I am a health nut off trail, but as soon as I start a thru hike, that all goes out the window. It’s not so much my cravings or the convenience that makes me go for the processed foods, but my wallet.

    What I’d love to read is not just why we should take healthy foods into consideration, but factoring price into the nutritional value and weighing out which bars and such are a balance of healthy and affordable. On trail, realistically, if I had to choose a package of PopTarts vs. buying one Pro Bar, had I regularly gone with the Pro Bar option, I’d probably have to quit my hike after a few hundred miles.

    As far as the produce goes, I have definitely packed out my fair share of veggies (avocados and greens make those tuna wraps SO much more bearable). It’s the quick, on-the-go snack brands that I’d love to learn more about. Or even better, maybe there are some non-trendy-healthy-brands that are healthier than we think. Would love to hear a nutritionist’s input 🙂

    Reply
    • Katie : Jan 30th

      Thanks so much for the comment, Lauren. I agree that price is definitely a big consideration, and not just for hikers, but for anyone who wants to eat for health and performance, but without spending a fortune. I’ve been compiling ideas around this topic and will likely publish something about it in the future, so keep an eye out 🙂

      I love sharing information that people most want to know, so this type of feedback helps me know where to spend my content writing time. Thanks for the thoughtful comment and well done on packing out those fresh veggies 🙂

      Reply
      • Lauren Hafley : Feb 6th

        YAAASSS! Can’t wait to read your upcoming posts 🙂

        Reply
  • Greg Carlson : Jan 30th

    Katie, great writeup!

    Reply
    • Katie : Jan 30th

      Glad you enjoyed it, Greg. Thanks for reading!

      Reply
  • Retired firefighter Tim Andrew : Feb 1st

    Thank you, Katie, leaving March 5th for the AT…..doing it for: Make A Wish nice article

    Reply
    • Katie Gerber : Feb 1st

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Tim! Happy hiking to you this year on the AT!

      Reply
  • Retired firefighter Tim Andrew : Feb 1st

    great articIe

    Reply
  • Brandon Chase : Feb 1st

    Good stuff! Nutrition on the trail is a big concern of mine as well, and so I’m sending about 80% of my food to myself via resupply boxes. I’ve spent weeks dehydrating nutritious and wholesome meals that will, hopefully, prevent a lot of the adverse affects of junk food that you’ve outlined. Keep up the good work!

    Reply
  • Katie Gerber : Feb 1st

    Thanks so much for the kind words, Brandon! It sounds like you’re well prepared for a successful hike! Well done on researching, dehydrating food, and prepping healthy meals. It’s a lot of work, but feeling good and giving yourself the best chances of a successful hike are worth the effort up front. Happy trails!

    Reply
  • Kevin : Feb 3rd

    Typing something on the internet does not make it true. Sugar is going to be your best friend on trail. Followed by fat. I used to be an elite swimmer (trained for the Olympics with gold medalists) and we would just eat junk all day long. Many of the top college swim teams at the time (filled with Olympians) were on high fat diets. Look up the diets of NBA and NFL players and it’s mostly just junk food. There is a big difference between what constitutes a healthy diet when your physical activity for the day consists of 30 minutes of moderate breathing on the treadmill and between real physical exertion day after day. And if you further need PCT specific information then the thru-hiker Dr. Brenda Braaten who has a Ph.D. in nutritional biochemistry wrote an article on the best nutrition for thru-hiking and she explained that the best diet is high sugar high fat. She said the best food you can eat on trail are Snickers.

    Reply
    • Katie : Feb 3rd

      Thanks for reading, Kevin. I agree that we can’t believe everything we read on the internet. Fortunately, we all have access to millions of peer-reviewed research studies in the biomedical literature (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/), several of which are cited above. The intention of this article was not to suggest a particular macronutrient protocol. I agree that both carbs and fat are essential for any athletic endeavor. The goal of the article was to bring awareness to the long-term implications of dietary choices on both personal health and the environment, and to provide alternatives for those seeking them.

      Reply
  • Justin : Feb 5th

    I like the idea of this article, but it could be more helpful I think. Maybe you could make more suggestions of specific foods. What do you carry on long thru hikes that is still light weight, but healthy? Thanks!

    Reply
    • Katie : Feb 5th

      Thanks for reading, Justin. I don’t go more into specifics here because 1) everyone’s tastes are different and 2) limited word count. I talk a bit more about specifics in my ebook on my website, and likely in future Trek posts. I tend to carry calorie dense whole foods like nuts, seeds, and dried fruit. I carry dehydrated veggies, beans, and grains. I carry nut butters and naturally sweetened granola. I carry organic tortilla chips or sweet potato chips. And a variety of other items based on my tastes. Mostly I look for items that have as few ingredients as possible, high calorie content, and plenty of micronutrients when possible.

      Reply
  • Uncle Tom : Aug 17th

    I am 68, Triple Crowner, and have never missed a day hiking due to illness. While I stay away from crap eating and eat super simple live foods at home, I am one of those folks that craves high calorie, fatty foods when I hike. Some of us are fortunate to have genetics that allow for wheat and dairy digestion and some are not. I literally have felt a positive lift from a candy bar within 10
    Minutes after eating it. Won’t happen from a dehydrated green bean. I buy as I go. And keep drop/ food boxes to a minimum.

    Reply
  • Bubbles : Aug 17th

    This was a great read with lots of wonderful info. Thank you!
    I had major stomach issues towards the end of my 2016 AT Thru hike. Eventually after I returned home I had to have my gallbladder removed. I still wonder if it had to do with my diet while hiking. 🤨

    Reply

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