Exercise-Induced Inflammation: Is your hiker diet helping or hurting?

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Thru-hiking is an intense physical undertaking that, over time, can cause significant inflammation in the body. This physiological process is called exercise-induced inflammation and is a normal response to the muscle damage caused by high-intensity physical activity. With proper rest and recovery, this inflammatory response will be used in a positive way to regenerate muscle tissue.

When inflammation becomes chronic, it can affect the entire body and cause fatigue, muscle damage, soreness, and decreased recovery capacity. Avoiding exercise-induced inflammation while thru-hiking may not be possible, but the good news is that your diet can play a big part in reducing (or increasing) this chronic inflammation. 

Exercised-Induced Inflammation and the Traditional Thru-Hiker Diet:

Honeybuns, ramen, and candy bars, oh my!

These foods are delicious, cheap, and easy to prepare, so it makes sense that so many thru-hikers would rely on them for sustenance. While all foods can fit into a healthy diet, it’s important to understand how they may help (or hinder) performance and recovery.

Research shows that the standard American diet, high in saturated fat and added sugar and low in fruits and vegetables, is associated with higher markers of acute and chronic inflammation in the body. Unfortunately, many thru-hikers forgo fruits and vegetables and eat more added sugar and saturated fat than in their daily lives.

Pro-inflammatory eating patterns, such as the traditional thru-hiker diet, have been shown to have detrimental effects on both exercise performance and recovery. Over time, the decreased recovery capacity, fatigue, and muscle soreness caused by prolonged inflammation can seriously affect your hiking!

To learn more about traditional thru-hiker diets, consider watching this video…

Anti-inflammatory Diets and Performance:

On the flip side…

Diets rich in antioxidants and heart-healthy fats (unsaturated fats, especially omega-3 fats) have been shown to reduce exercise-induced inflammation.

Antioxidants are found in foods such as berries, leafy greens, and beans. Heart-healthy fats can be found in nuts, seeds, fatty fish, and olive oil.

By including more of these powerful foods, an athlete can lower long-term exercise-induced inflammation. This can reduce muscle soreness, increase muscle growth, and decrease recovery time. All of these benefits can be incredibly helpful for day hikers and thru-hikers alike! 

What does this mean for you and your hiker diet?

You can impact your muscle recovery AND long-term health by creating an anti-inflammatory eating pattern on trail. It may seem daunting to increase antioxidants and healthy fats in your diet while also reducing cost, weight, and preparation time.

Thankfully, you can make many simple dietary changes to improve your diet and reduce exercise-induced inflammation.

Tips for Following an Anti-Inflammatory Diet on the Trail:

  • Add chia or ground flax seeds to your morning oatmeal for healthy fats.
  • Use olive oil instead of coconut oil in your recipes.
  • Focus on dried fruit (with more antioxidants per gram than its fresh counterpart!)
  • Swap milk chocolate or candy bars for dark chocolate.
  • Incorporate fruits with antioxidants (such as blueberries) into your breakfast.
  • Prepare fruit and vegetable-rich recipes for lunch or dinner.
  • Get some easy liquid nutrition by using meal replacement drinks.
  • Eat fresh fruits and vegetables on town days whenever possible.
  • If you’re eating meat, focus on tuna or salmon instead of pepperoni and sausage.

Ready to take your hiker diet to the next level?

Give this Backcountry Foodie recipe a try during your next adventure.

Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto Pasta

Backcountry Foodie Recipe
This is another recipe that you might consider keeping on hand at home for those evenings when you're looking for a quick and nutritious meal.
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4.8 from 29 votes
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NUTRITION (per serving)

cal/oz 138
cal/gram 4.9
Calories 593 kcal
PROTEIN 17 g
CARBS 51 g
Fiber 6 g
Added Sugar 0 g
Fat 38 g
Sodium 728 mg
Home Prep Time 4 mins
Field Prep Time 5 mins
WT/SERVING 4.3 oz (120 g)
MEAL PREPCold Soak, Cook
Diet TYPESGluten-Free, Low-Sugar, Vegetarian
Servings1 serving

INGREDIENTS
 
 

OPTIONAL

INSTRUCTIONS

HOME

  • Put noodles and diced tomatoes in a bag or container to be used in the backcountry. Kitchen scissors work well for dicing tomatoes.
  • Put the remaining dry ingredients in a separate bag or container to be stored with the noodles. See meal prep tips below.
  • Pack 2 Tbsp (28 g) olive oil in a leakproof container to be added when the meal is consumed. We recommend double bagging the oil in the event there is a leak.

FIELD

  • Remove the pesto packet from the noodle bag or container.
  • Add 8 oz (240 mL) hot/cold water or enough to cover the noodles.
  • Let stand until noodles are fully rehydrated. This will take approximately 5 minutes with hot water or 60 minutes with cold water.
  • Consume or properly discard the noodle broth to follow the Leave No Trace principle.
  • Add pesto packet and 2 Tbsp (28 g) olive oil to the noodles.
  • Stir to mix well and enjoy!

NOTES

VOLUME OF MEAL WHEN PREPARED

  • One heaping cup per serving (dry)

 

MEAL PREP TIPS

  • Omit pine nuts for a nut-free option. This will not result in a significant change in taste or texture.
  • Noodles do not have to be precooked and dehydrated if willing to cook noodles on the trail.
  • If preparing the meal for long-term storage, we recommend not adding the parmesan cheese until just before consuming the meal. By doing so, the shelf-life of the meal will be lengthened significantly.

 

NUTRITION

  • Total sugar (per serving): 5 g with no added sugar
  • To reduce the sodium content of the recipe by 291 mg, replace table salt with a salt substitute as desired.
  • To reduce calories by 120, reduce the olive oil volume by 1 Tbsp (14 g). We do not recommend omitting all of the oil as the oil is needed to create a pesto sauce.

MY NOTES

Did you make this recipe? We’d love to see it!Share photos from your kitchen or the backcountry below.

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ABOUT THE AUTHORS:

Kellan Morgan is a former dietetic intern mentored by Aaron Owens Mayhew, MS, RDN, CD.  She is a recent graduate of the Montana Dietetic Internship in Bozeman, MT, with an undergraduate degree in dietetics from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She hopes to create a career focused on non-diet disease management and eating disorder recovery using a Health At Every Size approach. When she’s not studying or talking about nutrition, she enjoys rock climbing, backpacking, and trail running

Aaron Owens Mayhew, MS, RDN, is a registered dietitian and ultralight long-distance backpacker with over 20 years of nutrition and backpacking experience. She’s also the founder and owner of Backcountry Foodie, an online ultralight recipes and meal planning platform for backpackers. She also enjoys teaching hikers about backpacking nutrition via virtual masterclassesYouTube videos, and podcast episodes You can follow Aaron’s adventures in the kitchen and the backcountry via Instagram and Facebook.

Backcountry Foodie Aaron Owens Mayhew with her dog Ella
References:

Chait, Alan, et al. “Saturated Fatty Acids and Inflammation: Who Pays the Toll?Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology, 1 Apr. 2010

Nieman, David C, et al. “Influence of a Polyphenol-Enriched Protein Powder on Exercise-Induced Inflammation and Oxidative Stress in Athletes: a Randomized Trial Using a Metabolomics Approach.” PloS One, Public Library of Science, 15 Aug. 2013

Spano, Marie. “Postexercise Recovery – Proper Nutrition Is Key to Refuel, Rehydrate, and Rebuild After Strenuous Workouts.” Today’s Dietitian, Nov. 2013

Totsch, S K. “Effects of a Standard American Diet and an Anti-Inflammatory Diet on Male and Female Mice.” National Library of Medicine, 22 Aug. 2018

Wehrmeinster, A A. “Antioxidant Content of Fresh, Frozen, Canned, and Dried Blueberries.” Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Aug. 2002

Exercise Induced Inflammation and Hiker Diets

6 Comments

  • As a “seasoned” backpacker that now has over 15,000 miles under my belt, inflammation is a serious consideration. This is a great article with good common sense, easy to digest, information. Thanks!

    Ellie (averagehiker.com)

    Reply
    • Agreed! It’s can really affect performance and recovery.

      Reply
  • Glad somebody is trying to change the perspective on hiker food, hiking could be a tough physical activity, specially a thru hike, and nutrition needs to be considered and optimized for improved performance, recovery and injury prevention. Thanks for your work and contribution.

    Reply
  • Once again, you presented easy to understand information. Many of your recipes fit in nicely with my whole food plant based lifestyle. Thanks!

    Reply

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