8 myths about hiking nutrition debunked

“], “filter”: { “nextExceptions”: “img, blockquote, div”, “nextContainsExceptions”: “img, blockquote, a.btn, ao-button” } }”>

Are you going out? Check out this article about the new Outside+ app now available on iOS devices for members! >”, “name”:in-content-cta”, “type”:link”}}”>Download the app.

We live in a world where nutritional advice for hiking is plentiful – and often contradictory. I’ve seen peanut butter labeled as a “naughty spread” in some articles and praised as a protein-packed powerhouse in others. In some years, high-fat diets are viewed with dismay, while in others they are touted as the answer to weight loss, ketosis, and eternal youth.

While nutritional advice for walking tends to be more practical, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Much of the advice we receive is filtered into the walking field through layers of diet culture and sensational media. And the truth is, we still don’t know much about how the body works. Digestion – and the way certain foods and nutrients affect the body – is incredibly complex and ridiculously varied. It is rarely the same from person to person. That’s why diet fads like probiotic supplements, intermittent fasting and even increased protein intake are poorly understood.

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

Myth: Simple sugars are bad for you. Complex carbohydrates 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 candies and cookies, not the kind you find in sweet potatoes or dried fruit, says Barylski.

“I’m not saying there aren’t negative health consequences associated with overeating [processed] sugar,” she explains. “That said, simple sugars do have a place. They can certainly be part of a satisfying, nutritious and sustainable diet. And they really come into their own on longer or more challenging walks.”

Simple sugars are a readily available source of glucose, the most important fuel for both our brain and body. During walks they can improve mood and maintain energy levels. And when we’re going fast, they’re actually a better choice than complex carbohydrates like starches or whole grains, because we get energy from simple sugars more quickly. “In some cases, complex carbohydrates can lead to digestive problems and negatively impact performance,” says Barylski.

Myth: Sugar causes inflammation.

Fact: Chronic inflammation – a type of whole-body inflammation that can be linked to chronic diseases – is a relatively new and poorly understood concept. And while people like to think of 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 cause chronic inflammation,” she explains. “Stress, discrimination, access to safe and clean water, your environment, your family life – these factors often have much greater consequences for your health and your risk of chronic inflammation or chronic diseases than we think.” In fact, research shows that diet and exercise account for only a third of the factors that contribute to our health. The rest has to do with our genetics or environmental factors that are largely beyond our control.

While there is some research showing that a diet high in simple sugars may be correlated with higher inflammation, that doesn’t necessarily make sugar the enemy, Barylski says.

“Eating simple sugars, even regularly, as part of an otherwise nutrient diverse diet is probably not a cause for concern, especially if you are protected from some of those other non-diet-related variables,” she says. In other words, if you don’t suffer from systemic discrimination, poor drinking water, or chronic stress, your sugar intake is probably just a drop in the bucket.

Simple sugars have their place on the trail, even in a rather unconventional trail mix. (Photo: Michael McCullough, via Flickr)

Myth: If you’re bonking, it’s because you didn’t eat enough along the way.

Fact: Hikers often think of banging as a result of not having enough fuel along the way. But the reality is that fucking can have a number of different explanations, says Barylski. It could indicate that you didn’t eat enough breakfast that morning, or even too little the day before your walk.

You can also fuck for eating too little in general. This is common among dieters, walkers, and people who tend to eat an unbalanced diet. If you’re in a calorie deficit in your daily life, eating a big breakfast won’t be enough to get your energy back to walking levels.

“Eating patterns over time matter,” says Barylski. “It’s not just about what you ate that day. If you don’t eat enough or if your diet is completely out of balance, it can also compromise your walking.”

Myth: Eating a high-fat snack before getting into your sleeping bag will 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 doubts its accuracy. Temperature regulation has more to do with eating sufficient and balanced amounts of macronutrients (protein, fats and carbohydrates) throughout the day and with your life in general, she explains. A single snack right before bed isn’t likely to have much impact on your body temperature, even in the short term. (It’s better to sleep with a hot water bottle or do some crunches before going to bed.)

“If you’re generally in a calorie deficit, you’ll have much more difficulty with temperature regulation than if you’re otherwise well nourished,” says Barylski.

Myth: You should avoid eating protein halfway through a walk because it is difficult to digest.

Fact: Walking publications (incl Backpacker) hikers often recommend that they prioritize fats and carbohydrates along the way. Normally the advice is that you should only take protein when you are at camp as this is the most effective at helping your muscles recover. But Barylski says this isn’t necessarily the best advice.

“It’s true that more attention to carbohydrates may be more appropriate for high-intensity walks, because carbohydrates require less energy to digest,” she says. “But if you’re taking a day walk or moving at a more moderate pace, the best recommendation is to combine carbohydrates with protein for long-lasting energy.”

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

“Fats can also be combined with carbohydrates and have a similar slowing effect on insulin response,” says Barylski. “But fats are one of the harder things for our bodies to break down. So eating something high in fat while on the road is likely to lead to digestive problems.”

A hand holding a jam sandwich while walking in the forest
A PB&J is perhaps the most classic way to combine carbs and protein for long-lasting fuel on the go. (Photo: SK, via Flickr)

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

Fact: Contrary to popular belief, the dehydration process does not actually strip food of its nutritional value.

“[Backpacking meals] retain the vast majority of nutrients, minerals and vitamins,” says Barylski. “But if someone is concerned about the breakdown of vitamins or minerals, 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 U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so look for “USP” on the label: the highest level of regulation available.

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

Fact: We’re looking at you, intermittent fasters. “While skipping breakfast can impact the type of energy your body uses during your walk, it is not the most metabolically efficient option. And it is not without costs,” says Barylski. “The most likely risks include hitting a wall more quickly, irritability and nausea or digestive problems.”

Some people can indeed skip breakfast without any ill effect. But most people experience low energy, irritability, and brain fog due to low blood sugar. When your blood sugar levels drop, cortisol and other stress hormones rise, making you cranky.

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

“Your body also needs amino acids, and it gets them through the breakdown of muscle,” she says. The dogma of weight loss usually teaches that fat breakdown happens first, and muscle breakdown only happens when you run out of fat. But Barylski says these processes often start simultaneously. Our bodies aren’t as picky as we’d like, and there isn’t really a way to control or target fat burning.

Myth: Becoming thinner will make you walk better.

Fact: In social media comments (for this and other publications) I often see people suggesting that being overweight makes you worse at walking. Others seem to believe that thinness is a good measure of health and fitness. Barylski says these ideas are just stereotypes – and that they are objectively untrue. Extensive scientific research shows that weight is not actually a determining factor for health.

“Culturally, we are taught that it is okay and even reasonable to judge people’s health based on how they look,” Barylski says. “This is at best useless and at worst actively harmful. There is so much to consider when it comes to 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 skinny hiker doesn’t mean you’re safe or that you can neglect your diet along the way. If you’re a bigger walker, you don’t necessarily need to change your diet or lose weight to improve your walking performance. And regardless of your body size, you have no right to comment on others.

Leave a Comment