Busted 8 Hiking Nutrition Myths

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We live in a world where nutrition advice abounds – and often contradicts one another. I’ve seen peanut butter as a “naughty spread” in some articles and praised as a full-protein powerhouse in others. Some years, high-fat diets are considered terrible and in others, they are thought of as the answer to weight loss, ketosis, and eternal youth.

Although walking nutritional advice tends to be more practical, it is not in a vacuum. Much of the advice we receive is filtered down to the realm of wanderlust through layers of diet culture and motivational media. And the truth is that we still don’t know much about how the body works. Digestion—and how certain foods and nutrients affect the body—is very complex and multifaceted. It is rarely the same from person to person. That’s why many diet fads like probiotic supplements, intermittent fasting, and even increased protein intake are misunderstood.

To get to the bottom of some of the most common myths, I spoke with Katie Barylski, the registered dietitian and lifelong walker behind Renaissance Nutrition Counseling in Boulder, Colorado. Here’s her take on eight common misconceptions.

Myth: Simple sugars are bad for you. Complex carbs are always a better choice.

Fact: When people talk about “sugar” or “simple sugars” being bad for you, they are mainly talking about processed sugars. This is the kind of sugar you find in candy and cookies—not the kind you find in sweet potatoes or dried fruit, Barylski says.

“I don’t want to say that eating too much has no negative impact on health [processed] sugar,” she explains. “That said, simple sugars have their place. They can certainly be part of a satisfying, nutritious and sustainable eating pattern. And they really shine on longer or more challenging climbs.”

Simple sugars are a readily available source of glucose, which is the main fuel for our brain as well as our body. On hikes, they can lift mood and keep energy levels up. And when we’re moving fast, they’re a better choice than complex carbs like starches or whole grains because we get energy from simple sugars faster. “In some cases, complex carbohydrates can cause digestive distress and negatively impact performance,” says Barylski.

Myth: Sugar causes inflammation.

Fact: Chronic inflammation – a type of whole-body inflammation that can be associated with chronic diseases – is a relatively new and poorly understood concept. And while people like to point to sugar as an easy scapegoat, there isn’t really enough research to support this, says Barylski.

“I think we generally overemphasize the role of diet when there are so many other influences that can lead to chronic inflammation,” she explains. “Stress, discrimination, access to clean and safe water, your environment, your home life – these factors often have a much greater impact on your health and the likelihood of chronic inflammation or chronic disease than you realize We believe them.” In fact, studies show that diet and exercise only account for a third of the factors that contribute to our health. The rest is related to our genetics or our environment – factors largely beyond our control.

While there’s some research showing that a diet heavy in simple sugars can be correlated with higher inflammation, sugar isn’t necessarily the enemy, Barylski says.

“Eating simple sugars, even regularly, as part of a nutrient-diverse diet is unlikely to be a concern, especially if you’re protected from some of the other non-dietary variables,” she says. . In other words, unless you have systemic oppression, poor drinking water, or chronic stress, your sugar intake is probably just a drop in the bucket.

Simple sugars have a place on the trail – even in an unusual trail mix. (Photo: Michael McCullough, via Flickr)

Myth: If you’re bonk, it’s because you didn’t eat enough on the trip.

Fact: Hikers often think of bonking as a result of under-fuelling on the trip. But the reality is that midwifery can have a number of different explanations, says Barylski. It could indicate that you ate too little breakfast that morning, or even too little the day before your walk.

You can also bonk because you are eating too little in your life in general. This is common among dieters, thru-hikers, and people who tend to diet imbalance. If you’re operating on a calorie deficit in your daily life, eating a big breakfast isn’t enough to bring your energy back to hiking-ready levels.

“Eating patterns over time are important,” says Barylski. “It’s not just about what you ate that day. If you’re not eating enough or there’s a complete imbalance in your diet, your trip can also be affected.”

Myth: If you eat a high-fat snack before getting into your sleeping bag, this will help keep you warm at night.

Fact: Barylski says she hasn’t seen any scientific research on this (probably because there isn’t any), but she suspects the truth. Temperature regulation has more to do with eating adequate and balanced amounts of macronutrients (proteins, fats and carbs) throughout the day and your life in general, she explains. A single snack right before bed is unlikely to affect your body temperature, even in the short term. (You’re better off going to bed with a hot water bottle or doing crunches before bed.)

“If you’re generally operating on a calorie deficit, you’re much more likely to struggle with temperature control than if you’re otherwise well-nourished,” says Barylski.

Myth: You should avoid eating protein mid-hike because it is hard to digest.

Fact: Nomadic publications (incl backpacker) often recommend that hikers prioritize fats and carbs on the trip. Usually, the advice goes, you should only load up on protein when you’re in camp, since it’s most effective in helping your muscles recover. But Barylski says that’s not necessarily the best advice.

“It’s true that focusing more on carbohydrates may be more appropriate for intensity increases, since carbohydrates take less energy to digest,” she says. “But if you’re on a day trip or moving at a more moderate pace, the best recommendation is to pair carbohydrates with protein for sustained energy.”

Protein, she says, can be a little easier to digest than high-fat or high-fiber foods. Combining proteins with carbs (think: pretzels and jerky or a PB&J sandwich) can help slow digestion and give you a more consistent release of energy, rather than a blood sugar spike and crash.

“Fats can also be paired with carbs and have the same slowing effect on that insulin response,” says Barylski. “But fats are one of the hardest things for our bodies to break down. So, on the trip, something high in fat could lead to digestive distress.”

A hand holding a butter and jelly sandwich in the woods as she wanders
PB&J might be the most classic way to combine carbs and protein for long-term fuel on the ride. (Photo: SK, via Flickr)

Myth: Dehydrated and freeze-dried foods have less nutritional value than fresh foods.

Fact: Contrary to popular belief, the process of dehydrating foods does not harm their nutritional value.

“[Backpacking meals] they retain the vast majority of nutrients, minerals and vitamins,” says Barylski. “But if someone is concerned about vitamin or mineral degradation, they can supplement with a daily multivitamin.” She recommends taking that vitamin with food for better digestion and making sure it’s a high-quality vitamin. Supplements are not regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so look for “USP” on the label – the highest level of regulation available.

Myth: Skipping breakfast before your trip is an effective way to burn more fat.

Fact: We’re looking at you, interim boys. “While skipping breakfast may affect the type of energy your body uses while walking, it’s not the most metabolically efficient option. And it’s not without cost,” says Barylski. “The most likely risks include hitting a wall faster, irritability, and nausea or digestive distress.”

Some people can skip breakfast without any ill effects. But most people experience low energy, irritability, and brain fog (ie a hangover) as a result of low blood sugar. When your blood sugar drops, cortisol and other stress hormones spike, and that’s why you get cranky.

The other problem, Barylski says, is that it’s not just fat that breaks down when you’re low on fuel.

“Your body also needs amino acids, and it gets those through muscle breakdown,” she says. Weight loss dogma usually teaches that fat breakdown occurs first, and muscle breakdown only occurs if you run off the fat. But Barylski says these processes often start at the same time. Our bodies are not as picky as we would like them to be, and there is really no way to control or direct fat burning.

Myth: Getting thinner will make you better at hiking.

Fact: In comments on social media (for this publication and others), I often see people saying that being overweight makes walking worse. Others seem to believe that thinness is a good metric of health and fitness. Barylski says these ideas are just stereotypes — and they’re objectively false. Copyright scientific research shows that weight is not really a determinant of health.

“Culturally we’re taught that it’s okay and even reasonable to judge people’s health based on how they look,” says Barylski. “This is unhelpful at best and actively harmful at worst. not so much that goes in weight. There are thin people who are not fit or healthy, and fat people who are fit and healthy.” So just because you’re a thin hiker doesn’t mean you’re clear or that you can neglect your diet on the trip. Similarly, if you are a walker more, you do not need to adjust your eating habits or lose weight to improve your walking performance. And, no matter what your body size is, you have no right to comment on other people.

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