Nutrition is a big component of day to day life especially in the backcountry. Over the years I have seen students and clients experience food stress due to their preconceived notions about food. “Carbs are bad”! “Fats are bad”! “Animal products will give you a heart attack”! “I am going to gain weight with all this food”! Our caloric needs differ in the backcountry. Our bodies are not only being physically exerted for several hours on end, but they continue to work hard to maintain core body temperature and repair our overworked muscles.
There is a ton of misinformation on the internet or what I like to call “the bathroom wall”. People tend to get sucked in to many unreliable sources and fall victim to various fad diets without truly understanding the effects it has on their body. Every human body is different and thus, each body responds differently to what we expose it to. That being said, while I have done a lot of research, taken classes, and sought advisement from various practitioners, I am not a nutritionist or a physician. This blog post is meant to serve as an educational opportunity for those who wish to read about how I continue to discover what works best for my body under extreme physical and mental stress.
As an athlete nutrition has always been a focus starting at a young age. My coaches often discussed nutrition and its impact on performance. However, as a teenager through my mid-twenties I struggled to put in enough calories to keep up with the physical demands of swimming and water polo and pretty much ate whatever was available just to barely keep up. I was a walking garbage disposal. It wasn’t until I started going on long expeditions where I didn’t have access to endless amounts of food, where the physical demands were much more sustained, and where I would drop 10-20lbs I didn’t have to lose, did I realize the importance of deliberate dietary planning of well-balanced meals and snacks. In particular, a short 3 day glacier traverse with my now husband, Corey, served as the impetus to changing the way I think about delivering sugar to my cells.
In 2010, Corey and I traveled up the Herbert Glacier and out the Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, Alaska. We wound up epicing as terrain challenges kept being thrown at us from uncrossable rivers to bushwacking with skis in 4th class terrain to miles of weaving back and forth through the maze of crevasses. I found myself downing shots of powdered drink mix to give myself quick energy boosts only to bonk further down the energy spectrum. I became frustrated and angry with Corey whose body can go hours on end without food or water. In fact, there were times where I was downright irrational. “Brigitte, let’s stop. You need to eat.” “Why? You don’t’ need to eat so why should I eat?!?” After three long grueling days, I reflected on how diet was a big factor in my lack of sustained energy and its impact on my mental state throughout our trip. That summer I embarked on a frontcountry nutrition experiment that changed my approach to food.
My experiment involved being tested for reactive hypoglycemia and observing how glycemic load/absorption rates in food affected my energy levels. I tracked everything that went into my mouth, the time I ate it, and the effect it had on my body. I am a numbers nerd and thus, all this was calculated down to the calorie and number of grams of carbohydrate, fat, protein, sugar, and fiber in an Excel spreadsheet. I did this for two months. While this experiment would have been even more telling had I had the resources to do daily blood work, the other data collected led me to discover that my body is highly sensitive to foods with a high glycemic load. In a nutshell, there are carbohydrates that break down quickly and others slowly. Fiber plays a big role in absorption rates. Conclusion? My body needs a balance of all three macronutrients and ingested in a way where absorption is slowed down. It does best with foods that have a lower glycemic load and when I include fat, protein, and fiber in each meal and snack. When I do a good job with my diet, my energy levels stay sustained throughout the day despite level of exertion, I am able to stay level headed, and I do not lose as much weight. Over the years, I have found that the majority of my students and clients do really well on a similar diet.
I recently have revisited my nutritional practices after receiving an infertility diagnosis in April 2018. To provide some background, I have very low ovarian reserve and my uterine wall is riddled with fibroids (benign tumors), some as large as a baseball. They have misshapen my uterus and blocked a fallopian tube. My husband and I were told that we could not conceive naturally and that egg donation wasn’t a good option for us. The chances of miscarriage are very high and carrying a baby would most likely lead to serious complications. Removing them would result in the loss of my reproductive organs and being placed on synthetic hormones for the remainder of my life. Given that I was having very few symptoms resulting from the tumors I chose to keep my uterus fibroids and all.
Needless to say, I found the size and number of fibroids alarming. I began the research process and analyzing my food choices. After speaking with my chiropractor who is also trained as a functional nutritionist, I suspected that my body was suffering a hormonal imbalance and that certain foods were causing an inflammatory response. For example, I have an anaphylactic reaction every time I eat red chili peppers requiring an epinephrine injection. It occurred to me that I may be having some level of inflammation with all peppers and perhaps all foods in the nightshade family (peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, goji berries, potatoes). I also hypothesized that dairy could be a culprit in hormonal imbalance. As such, I decided to cut all nightshades and dairy from my diet. I became hyper-vigilant about the source and rearing practices of the animal products I ingested in addition to limiting soy products. I also added a daily dose of non-caffeinated green tea extract after reviewing a study that showed fibroid shrinkage in mice. My overall goal was to balance my hormones and keep the fibroids from growing. Shrinking them would be an added bonus.
This new diet change posed some challenges as an outdoor educator and guide. I could no longer eat the majority of the food in the rations provided. I felt overwhelmed by feelings of “What the hell am I going to eat?” Dairy was a big source of fat in the field. I have French genes in my blood. Cheese is one of my favorite foods. I contemplated cancelling all my contracts, but decided there had to be another way. I could make all my own food and cook for myself. If I cooked and dehydrated my meals ahead of time it would take very little additional fuel and cook time would be minimal. Our dehydrator finally got put to good use as I prepared 8 weeks of meals.
The result of these dietary changes? About a month into it, I had less joint pain, had more energy, and zero menstrual cramps. Another added benefit was I became more flexible and capable of handling clients’ dietary restrictions. I no longer find meal planning and shopping for guided trips daunting.
In summary, I hope that you will take away a few learnings from reading about my nutrition reflections.
- Listen to your body.
- Experiment with food choices, but do so under the guidance of trained practioners.
- When looking for practitioners seek out more than one. Most physicians are not trained in nutrition. Find a nutritionist-physician team to work with.
- Be skeptical of what you find on the internet. Critique every piece of information even when coming from practitioners. Ask questions until you feel you have gained a good understanding of the topic. Even then, keep asking.
- With discipline giving up even your favorite foods is possible.
- Having dietary restrictions does not mean that you cannot enjoy long backcountry expeditions. The time spent preparing food for the summer was well worth being able to enjoy the benefits of being out in nature.
- The responsibility of meal planning and accommodating dietary needs of students/clients does not have to be overwhelming. I will share some of my recipes in a future blog post including where I source my food from.
Until next time…