There are two main categories of nutrients:
- Macronutrients: those needed in large quantities. This includes protein, carbohydrates, and fats.
- Micronutrients: those needed in small quantities. This includes vitamins, minerals, and other bioactive compounds (plant chemicals that effect a living organism, tissue or cell)
In this chapter we’ll go over the basics of macronutrients, starting with protein.
What are proteins and what do they do?
There is much confusion in the health world about the importance of protein. Ever since its discovery in 1839, protein has taken center stage as one of the most sacred of nutrients The word has its roots in the Greek word proteos, meaning of most importance. It is a vital component of our bodies and functions as a building block for muscles, organs, hormones, and all other functional parts of the body.
In the 19th century, protein was synonymous with meat, a cultural association that has stayed with us over the years. Having meat on the table was traditionally a sign of wealth and good health. As a result of the cultural bias toward meat and protein and the idea that more must always be better, the scientific recommendation for protein was set at twice the established amount needed to sustain the human body.
That is the historical ground on which many people and health professionals still stand regarding their perspectives on nutrition. But if we take a step back, we start to see that there may be a different story. Healthy populations in Asia, South America, and Africa, for example, consume a diet very low in animal protein and have chronic disease rates that are a fraction of those in the Western world, meaning heart disease, diabetes, obesity, etc. is a rare occurrence.
We know now that the full spectrum of amino acids, which proteins are made up of, can be found in every plant food. The idea that certain foods need to be combined with others in order to provide complimentary amino acid profiles, or a complete protein, has recently been discredited. For example, common wisdom dictates that beans must be eaten with rice in order to get all the essential amino acids in one meal. But recent studies show that your body will hold onto the amino acids it needs from the beans you ate last night and then take what else it needs from the rice you’re having this afternoon. This means that you will absorb the amino acids that you need throughout the day or week without having to worry about combining proteins at a meal.
In the United States, the Recommended Daily Allowance of protein for a healthy adult is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. For a woman who weighs 60 kilograms (132 pounds), this comes out to be 48 grams of protein; for a man who weighs 70 kilograms (154 pounds), 56 grams. Assuming a 2,000 calorie diet and 4 calories per gram of protein, this corresponds to about 11 percent of total calories from protein, or 9 percent of a 2,500 calorie diet. To round it off, the recommended amount was set at 10 percent (0.8 grams per kilogram) of calories from protein. This number has now been reviewed 14 times by a panel of expert scientists. Given that a potato is 8 percent protein, throw in a half cup of beans at 27 percent protein, and we can easily meet or exceed our recommended protein needs on plant foods.
By including too much animal protein and increasing intake to the 17 percent (or more) of calories found in the standard American diet, we risk stressing the kidneys and liver in processing the high amounts of nitrogen. We also put ourselves at risk of, first, the adverse effects of animal protein itself and, second, displacing the health benefits of nutrient-rich plant foods.
So how much protein do you need as a thru-hiker? According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine, endurance athletes need between 1.2 and 1.4 grams per kilogram of body weight per day.
So an endurance athlete weighing 132 pounds (60 kilograms) needs between 72 and 84 grams of protein per day. Let’s assume this person is a thru-hiker and eats an impressive 4,000 calories in one day and only 10 percent of those came from protein. This still amounts to 400 calories of protein, or 100 grams (at 4 calories per gram), exceeding the recommended 84 grams. However, if this person were to not meet their calorie needs and only consume 2500 calories, they might end up with only 62.5 grams of protein (2500 calories x .10 = 250 calories from protein, 250 calories /4 calories per gram = 62.5 grams of protein).
Given that most plant foods are at least 10 percent protein and that nuts, seeds, and beans are even more, eating a diet of 10 percent protein (or even slightly higher) is completely manageable without eating meat. In the next chapter, you will see a daily breakdown of plant foods that meets or exceeds this recommendation. Note that the meal plan is based on a 4,000 calorie daily intake and exceeds protein needs of a 132-pound hiker. So even if you consume closer to 3000-3500 calories you are still likely to meet your basic protein needs, depending on your size.
A common problem among thru-hikers is not getting enough calories and subsequently not getting enough protein. Though it is not necessary for everyone to drink a protein shake while thru-hiking, it may be helpful to some people. If you find yourself feeling week and tired, try having a plant-based protein drink before going to sleep. If it helps, keep doing it. If not, don’t waste your money. You probably just need to eat more. When choosing a protein powder, try to avoid cheap proteins like soy protein isolate, whey, or casein. Pea and rice proteins are good, clean sources and are easily found in powder form. Some good brands include Vega, MRM Veggie, Sunwarrior, SAN RawFusion, NutraFusion, Orgain and Garden of Life.
Carbohydrates: What They Are, Where They’re Found?
Carbohydrates are of primary importance for thru-hikers since they provide energy. Through the digestive process, the body breaks down carbohydrates into sugar, or glucose. Glucose is the preferred source of energy for every muscle cell in the body as well as for your brain and organs. Glucose is so important that the body keeps a backup supply, just in case you don’t get enough through food. This backup is called glycogen and is found in the muscles and liver. For example, when you’re hiking but haven’t eaten in a few hours, your body is making sugar to feed your muscles by burning glycogen. Many athletes and hikers are familiar with the bonk that occurs when you just can’t go any further. This is due to running through all your glycogen storage until there is no more stored sugar left to feed the cells. The idea of carb-loading before an endurance event stems from the need to enable maximum glycogen storage in the liver and muscles to put off the bonk for as long as possible.
Carbohydrates can be found in foods such as grains, starchy vegetables, legumes, fruits, and sugary foods. Simple carbohydrates are those that the body can break down and turn into sugar very easily. This includes refined grains (such as bagels, tortillas, white rice, ramen, crackers, and instant oats), sweets like candy, fruit and dried fruit, (although fruit can also be considered a complex carbohydrate due to its fiber content). These foods are ideal for moments when you need a fast burst of energy—like the last couple of miles of a big climb or when you feel a little light-headed (or grumpy) from not eating for a while.
Complex carbohydrates take longer for the body to break down and provide a more slow-burning source of energy. Complex carbohydrates include whole grains (such as rolled oats, whole wheat tortillas/bread, and brown rice), legumes (such as lentils, beans, peas, and chickpeas), and starchy vegetables (such as potatoes and squash). These foods are good to eat at meals throughout the day to ensure a steady supply of energy and to keep you from becoming hungry right away. For a thru-hiker, a steady intake of both simple and complex carbohydrates throughout the day is ideal.
The truth about fats
The most important thing about fats to a thru-hiker is that they provide over twice as many calories as carbohydrates or protein. One gram of fat provides 9 calories while 1 gram of carbohydrate or protein provides only 4 calories. However, not all fats are the same. Some fats, like saturated fat and cholesterol from animal-based foods, can be damaging to the blood vessels and increase a person’s risk for disease.
Omega-3 fatty acids are fats that the body uses to make anti-inflammatory compounds. While fish oil is one of the most bio-available sources of omega-3s, it can also be a highly concentrated source of toxins. There is also no evidence to support fish oil as protective against heart disease, as was once thought. In a plant-based diet, one can get plenty of omega-3s through foods such as walnuts, ground flax seeds and chia seeds.
Although they do provide dense calories, fats are more work for the body to digest and, like protein, stay in the stomach for longer. This is good to keep us feeling full but can also be taken too far and make us feel bloated or sluggish. Studies have actually shown that immediately after eating a high-fat meal, fat enters the blood and slows down circulation. This is not ideal during a long day of hiking. So, for hikers to take full advantage of this high-calorie nutrient, it’s best to incorporate small amounts throughout the day in the form of nuts or added oil. To prevent digestive troubles, higher-fat meals should be eaten in the evening when you don’t plan to hike anymore or when you are resting in town.
How Calories Work?
Getting enough calories is, for many people, the most challenging part about nutrition on the trail. It’s nearly unavoidable to lose weight while hiking long distances for weeks on end, and this is okay. The concern comes when you feel constantly tired. This may be a sign of not getting enough calories. The simple solution is to take days off and eat as much as you can. Another solution may be to increase the amount of food you eat if you aren’t already taking in your maximum amount of food.
When it comes to the question of how many calories you actually need for a day of hiking, the answer depends on many factors. It will vary depending on your own metabolism, the weight of your pack, the miles that you walk and the elevation change involved. Though not based on any hard science, a good rule of thumb is to account for 150 to 200 calories per mile. For a 20-mile day, this would be between 3,000 and 4,000 calories. Some may argue that even more calories are needed. And of course, the longer you’re out on the trail, the more important it becomes to get enough calories.
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