A few months ago, I began researching for a series of articles on the subject held most dear to every thru-hiker: food. The Internet is full of sports nutrition advice, much of which is driven by fads and not entirely evidence-based, but even the good advice doesn't take into account the limitations that long-distance hikers face. We lack regular access to fresh food and refrigeration, for example, and our kitchens and pantries have to fit on our backs.
Additionally, thru-hikers can't always get to a decent grocery store to resupply and food selection is often limited, so it would be difficult to stick to a dietitian's specific meal plan. Instead, we need to educate ourselves, so we know how to make smarter decisions and adapt to whatever situation we're in. That is what I've been trying to do for the last few months and what these articles are all about.
In order to get this right, and not simply contribute to the bad advice on the Internet, it quickly became clear that I needed to consult some experts. I reached out to many professional sports dietitians, but I had no idea my search would lead me to meeting someone with a resume like Tavis Piattoly's. He is the Sports Dietitian and Nutrition Consultant for the New Orleans Saints, New Orleans Hornets, and the Tulane University Athletic Department. He is also the co-founder and Director of Sports Nutrition education for My Sports Dietitian, as well as creator and host of the Next Level Podcast.
Down the road, I'll combine my backpacking experience and Tavis's expert advice to write more posts about food and nutrition, but today I'll start it off with part one of a three-part interview where Tavis tackles some of my nutrition questions and questions from fellow backpackers on the WhiteBlaze.net forum and the Backpacker's Life Facebook page.
RG: First off, from a nutrition and optimal performance standpoint, how do you see long distance backpacking being different from shorter duration trips or other endurance sports?
TP: I find it very similar to other endurance or even ultra-endurance sports. When you're going on a 10-12 hour hike, you not only need a strong cardiovascular system, but you also need to be well fueled to get through a long day of activity. The intensity may not be as high compared to someone competing in a 1/2 or full Ironman, but the duration is very similar. I've estimated that when backpacking for 10-12 hours carrying a 30-40 backpack, your nutritional requirements could range from 6000-8000 calories for someone between 160-185 pounds.
I know many thru-hikers, myself included, do not get enough calories. The weight and muscle loss proves that. Although, weight loss seems to taper off after two or three weeks, even if daily miles increase. Do our caloric needs change on a long distance hike? Or is this simply because we require less calories as we lose weight and/or because we eventually develop a stronger appetite and start eating more?
There could be several reasons for this. One is they are not eating enough calories initially and they begin to realize it by noticing a reduction in energy and strength, therefore they increase their calorie intake. If you lose a considerable amount of weight (15-20 lbs.) during a hike, your metabolic rate will drop as well as your caloric needs, so it is possible for the hiker to begin to match their calorie needs once their weight stabilizes. The only way for me to truly know would be for the hiker to log everything he or she eats while logging their activity.
If you are hiking the same distance each day with a similar elevation then calorie needs will be similar if weight remains the same. It seems some days are more intense than others depending on elevation, but on average, calorie needs should be similar each day. At the same time, let's say you are averaging an intake of 5000 calories per day but burning 6000 calories per day, at the end of the week you will be in a 7,000 calorie deficit, which would yield a 2 lb. weight loss.
In those daily calories, do you recommend a certain ratio of fats, carbohydrates, and protein?
I can't say this sport has an ideal ratio that is a one size fits all. If I were to design a plan for a hiker, I'd probably design something along this ratio: 50-55% carbohydrate, 20% protein, 30% fat. It also will depend on the body type of the hiker. If I have a skinny or lean hiker with a good amount of body fat, he or she will probably tolerate carbohydrates better, so I wouldn't need to be too conservative here. If I had someone who had a higher body fat, I'd probably go a little lower in carbohydrates (40-45%) in order to utilize more fat stores as an energy source.
Protein is often expressed as a percentage of total calories, but I’ve read that there is a finite amount of protein our body can process. Is this true and what seems to be maximum amount? Is there harm in consuming too much protein?
There's never been a study that has truly examined how much an individual can truly metabolize. In regards to protein synthesis, the optimal dosage post exercise seems to be around 20 g but the key is making sure you get 6 grams of Essential Amino Acids (EAA's) with the key Amino Acid being Leucine. Leucine is key for signaling mTOR synthesis which is critical for muscle recovery and growth.
(Note: Good food sources of Leucine include: soy, beef, peanuts, salami, fish, wheat germ, almonds, chicken, chicken eggs, and oats.)
For a sport like hiking, I would recommend 1.6 - 2.0 g/kg of body or about .8 grams per pound. If you weight 200 lbs, you would need approximately 160 grams of protein/day. I would recommend at least 20% of your total calories be from protein, so this could be a lot higher than the g/kg previously recommended. This is to make sure you preserve muscle tissue during extended hikes. My concern would be if you're not consuming enough calories and utilizing muscle tissue for energy, the extra protein could help spare muscle loss and tap into some fat stores unless carbohydrate was prevalent throughout the day.
Jasper from the Backpacker's Life Facebook page would additionally like to know, “Would those percentages change over the course of a 5-month hike as your body's caloric demands increase?”
If the intensity or duration increases during the 5 months, then yes, as I'd probably boost carbohydrate intake a little. If calorie intake is sufficient and meeting the demands, we shouldn't have to alter much to maintain a high level of energy.
The quality of food consumed could have an impact on a backpacker's immune system (i.e. lack of fruits and veggies) which could make the backpacker more susceptible to infection, illness, etc., especially during a 5-month hike when the only recovery time is at night while you sleep.
Also related to this question, Malto from WhiteBlaze.net asks, “Will eating fats while hiking increase your total caloric contribution from fat, or will it reduce the calories that your body burns from fat, keeping it constant?”
Great question. If you're consuming a high fat diet, the body will utilize fat as an energy source and spare glycogen. If you can get to the point where you tap into your fat stores, then you will be a fat burning machine. Keep in mind we only have about 2000 calories from carbohydrate available to use during activity until we have to replace it. We have over 100,000 calories from fat available for use but we rarely tap into those stores because we're always consuming refined carbohydrates which prevents us from burning fat as fuel.
What are some good examples of high-fat calorie-dense foods that are suitable for backpacking? Nuts and seeds, peanut butter, olive oil, and some dark chocolates are some of the most calorie dense that I know of, but I wonder if there are others I haven't considered.
You mentioned those that are the most critical that remain stable under heat as well as don't spoil. Walnuts are best due to added Omega 3 benefits which can help fight inflammation. Another would be MCT Oil (Medium Chain Triglycerides). It could be added to veggies or starch. It's bland and the body burns it quite quickly after consumption.
I'd like to go into inflammation more in a bit, but to finish up this section, what about fiber? How much and why is it important to a thru-hiker?
The average recommended amount is between 35-45 g. I typically recommend trying to get 10 g for every 1000 calories consumed. The importance and benefits for a hiker would be to help regulate blood sugar and keep you full longer. The more stable your blood sugar and insulin levels are, the more energy you should have throughout the day. This would be the benefits of bringing foods like Nut Bars, Trail Mix, Quinoa (cook later), Whole Grain Pasta, etc. on a hike as a more stable carbohydrate will be better utilized as an energy source and keep you more full during a long day of activity.
Click here to read part two of our interview where we discuss sample meal plans, foods to avoid, inflammation, and much more.
Part Two: Nutrition for Thru-hikers: An Interview with Sports Dietitian, Tavis Piattoly
Part Three: Nutrition for Thru-hikers: An Interview with Sports Dietitian, Tavis Piattoly
Grocery Shopping with a Thru-hiker
How to Make a Wicking Alcohol Stove
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Tavis Piattoly, MS, RD, LDN is the Sports Dietitian and Nutrition Consultant for the New Orleans Saints, New Orleans Hornets, and the Tulane University Athletic Department where he coordinates nutritional assessments, provides nutrition education, and develops individual meal plans for athletes to improve their health, performance, and recovery. In addition, he consults for numerous high schools athletic programs throughout the state of Louisiana. Futhermore, Tavis worked closely with Roy Jones Jr. and Bernard Hopkins to help them retain their boxing titles and has been working with Lance Berkman since 2011.
He is also the co-founder and Director of Sports Nutrition education for My Sports Dietitian (www.mysportsd.com), an online sports nutrition education company to help High School and College Athletes improve their eating habits to enhance performance, recovery, and health through the guidance of a Licensed Sports Dietitian.
Tavis obtained a Master’s of Science Degree in Exercise Physiology from Louisiana State University and a Bachelors of Science Degree in Nutrition and Dietetics from Louisiana State University. He is a registered and licensed Dietitian/Nutritionist. In addition, he serves on the Louisiana High School Athletic Association Sports Medicine Advisory Board.