Food Choices

Good news! Your vacation request has been approved. You’ve signed up for a Desert Survivors adventure and your gear is piled next to the front door ready, to go. Best of all, perhaps, you’ve amassed a trove of lightweight, high-fat, high-sugar food to power your upcoming exertions without adding undue bulk or weight to your pack.

Backpacking food with a high calorie to weigh ratio is supported by experienced national trail through-hikers and is favored by engineers who backpack. They are influenced by thermodynamic considerations of food calorie to weight ratios where fat wins and sugar as a close second. Health considerations are sidelined in this approach.

There is an obvious appeal of potato chips, salami, cheese, butter, jelly, crackers, chocolate, M&Ms, cookies and Gatorade. If the best diet choice were a simple fuel input vs. work output calculation like determining the fuel efficiencies of an electric motor verses a diesel engine then the calorie dense diet would be great. Human metabolism and health is far more complicated that motor efficiency.

The high calorie density diet has unfortunate consequences. In our culture it has been considered normal to gain a pound a year. This is not normal and leads to a high incidents of avoidable disease. A pound a year doesn’t seem like much, and it’s hard to notice it creeping up against the normal background fluctuation of a few pounds of water weight. After thirty years, thirty pounds have been gained and cloths size has increased several times and considerable damage has been done.

The major weight gain foods are French fries, potato chips, sugar sweetened drinks, red meats, sweets and desserts, refined grains, other fried foods, fruit juices, and butter. Hydrogenated fats in many processed foods are toxic to blood vessels and saturated fats also contribute to arterial disease. High fructose corn syrup should be avoided. In addition there are the toxic additives and unnatural compounds that come with processed foods.

Refined sugar, glucose, has a high calorie load with no other nutritional benefits. High-fructose corn syrup and sucrose are even worse, particularly in excess. Evolution has not prepared us for frequent sudden spike in blood sugar. Excess sugar caused a sudden increase in blood insulin that has major effects on the liver, muscles, fat cells and brain. In excess this contributes to causing diabetes and other diseases.

The best weight loss foods are fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Dairy foods are not big contributors to weight gain. Low calorie yogurt and tree nuts in moderation are weight loss foods. Resist the silky voice of corporate advertising that has so successfully programmed the civilized world to drink diluted syrups and eat processed food.

Concerns about deteriorating health often leads to a specific named diet or cutting down on fats and sweets. This usually does not last. Our cultural background and corporate advertising tells us that we deserve a rich, sweet, high fat, and tasty diet. It is accepted that increased blood pressure, high cholesterols, and weight gain are natural companions to the aging process. So, we revert to our old ways reassuring ourselves that exercise and a superior genetic makeup will overcome any bad effects of the food we like. And then, if medical trouble does develops there are pills and even surgery to make things right. The truth is that medical treatment of the consequences of an unhealthy diet may help a few for a while but is a very poor alternative to the benefits of prevention.

Some might think that a fat and sugar filled diet is acceptable during a short backpack trip. However, it is very difficult to eat a high-fat diet for a while then revert to a healthy diet upon return. A well-known risk among national trail through-hikers is a profound weight gain during the months after a trip. A calorie rich diet is standard for through-hikers. Since they have a very high calorie need they can eat all they want and still lose weight but have great difficulty returning to a reasonable diet afterward.

Some eat what they want and have gained very little weight since high school, perhaps through regular exercise or superior genetics. While this is better than a steady weight gain, it does not protect from the consequences of eating food that is unhealthy. There are many less that average-weight people that have arterial disease and a poor prognosis.

One could wonder how can energy be maintained on a strenuous trip without a high-fat diet. Won’t they be hungry? Won’t they fall behind their more energetic, fat-consuming companions? No. In the first few days of greatly increased vigorous exercise, the body suppresses appetite in most people. So there’s no need to try to match calories to workload over the first few days of a trip. Stored fat will provide all of the energy needed.

As long a sugar is available in the blood, excess calories will be stored as fat and sugar will be used for energy. As the blood sugar is reduced, stored sugar is mobilized from glycogen. With continued exercise and fasting, as glycogen becomes scarce, fat will be used for energy. This is the only way fat is removed from fat cells. This fat burning process becomes more efficient when used frequently, analogous to the way exercise improves the function of muscles.

Using fat will produce all of the energy needed and does not cause distress, fatigue or hunger. And since exercise induced endorphins work like narcotics to relieve pain and produce a sense of well being the process can be markedly enjoyable.

Nutritious lightweight backpacking food can be assembled inexpensively at home starting with rice, noodles, couscous or quinoa and adding a selection of bean flakes, potato powder, dehydrated of freeze dried vegetables, grated hard cheese, powdered sauce mix and healthy oils.

My backpacking meal plan changes regularly. The current version takes 1 1/4 pounds of food per day. Dinner starts with a soup that consists of a dry base of pasta, couscous, instant rice, or noodles and a Lipton Cup of Soup packet, salt, and olive oil. Then there is a dehydrated grain and vegetable stew from Mary Jane Farm that is hydrate in the pouch it comes in.

A large cup is used to boil water for the stew then a second boil to make a soup in the cup. No need for a pot or a bowl. I eat half of the stew at night and eat the remainder cold in the morning. Through the day I have salted mixed nuts, Clif Crunch Honey Oat granola bars and Kind Plus Almond Walnut Macadamia Nut bars.