How to Reset Your Diet After a Thru-Hike

By Amelia Guinn, MS, RD, CD

Updated January 6, 2024
This post may contain affiliate links.
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So, you’ve finished your backpacking adventure! Time to rest, recuperate, and make the transition back to everyday life. Many people find that this transition can be a bit rough. Complaints of recent thru-hikers include sore muscles and joints, fatigue, digestive issues, and even depression. One of the biggest concerns is post-hike weight gain. Many hikers are still hungry and can’t imagine going back to the diet they enjoyed before their hike. Fortunately, good nutrition can give your recovery a huge boost and help prevent weight gain as your body readjusts to a normal amount of food. Read on to find out how eating right can help you feel like yourself again. And be sure to try our Thru-Hiker’s Recovery Smoothie!

Why do I feel so cruddy after my hike??

You’ve just spent an extended period of time working extremely hard. Everyone knows that physical activity is good. But sometimes, too much exercise without proper recovery can cause inflammation in the body. In addition to that, you may have been living on foods that didn’t provide enough nutrition. This is ok short term, but after a month or more, you’ll likely feel the effects. A lot of common hiking foods are also high in unhealthy fats and refined sugar. These foods can worsen inflammation and upset the balance of microbes in your gut (the microbiota), contributing to a range of symptoms from constipation to low mood to frequent colds.

Why am I gaining weight?

Weight gain can happen as a result of your body and mind being used to snacking constantly and eating larger meals. Unless you are very active at home, your thru-hiker diet likely contains too many calories for your off-trail lifestyle. The type of food can also play into weight gain. Processed, low-fiber foods that are not filling or nutritious (but help you get in necessary calories on your hike) can easily add up without your body registering just how much you’re eating.

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How can I reset my diet?

Follow some basic eating tips for preventing weight gain, fighting inflammation, and rebalancing your gut.

Do a pantry cleanout

If you have a bunch of sugary hiking foods hanging out in your pantry, it’s time to put them away for a while. Do you need to cut out everything but green veggies? No! Please don’t. But try to limit inflammatory foods for at least a couple of weeks. These include processed meats like pepperoni, foods high in saturated fats like cheeseburgers and fried chicken, processed snacks like packaged donuts and potato chips, and sugary foods like candy bars and soft drinks.

Include anti-inflammatory foods

Just like some foods are inflammatory, others are known to fight inflammation and help bring the body back into balance. These foods also tend to be high in fiber and/or healthy fats, which will help control hunger. Anti-inflammatory foods include those high in omega-3 fats (chia seeds, flax, fatty fish like salmon, and walnuts), olive oil, colorful fruits and veggies (berries, tomatoes, leafy green veggies, mangos, kiwis, and kidney beans), and spices like cinnamon, ginger, and turmeric.

Anti-inflammatory foods
Increase your intake of anti-inflammatory foods to help your body recover.
Inflammatory foods to avoid
Limit inflammatory foods (especially highly processed, fried, and sugary foods).
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    Feed your gut what it needs

    The world of gut bacteria is still new for scientists, but we’re starting to realize how important it is to keep these bugs in balance. Besides comfortable digestion (less gas, bloating, and diarrhea), a healthy gut can affect every system in your body. This includes the immune system and your hormones. Hormones influence weight, stress and energy levels, and countless other areas. Two things that we know can improve gut health are probiotics and prebiotics.

    Probiotics are live bacteria (good bacteria!) that can colonize your gut and help fight off bad bacteria that would like to take hold. Probiotics can be found in yogurt, kefir, and some fermented foods like miso, tempeh, sauerkraut, and kimchi.

    Prebiotics are foods that the good bacteria like to eat. Most prebiotics are certain types of fiber. Prebiotics can be found in a wide range of fruits, veggies, and whole grains. Some foods particularly high in prebiotics include leeks, onions, garlic, Jerusalem artichoke, apples, banana, and oats.

    Warning: increase these foods and any fiber-containing food slowly! Increasing too quickly before your gut adjusts can cause gas and discomfort.
    Woman with belly pain
    An unhealthy balance of gut bacteria is sometimes the cause of digestive complaints.
    Probiotic foods to eat for gut health
    Probiotic foods (such as some fermented vegetables, kimchi, sauerkraut, and miso) contain live bacteria and can help restore gut health.
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    Take care of yourself

    Now more than ever is the time for basic good nutrition.

    • Eat regularly. Don’t skip meals.
    • Eat a balanced plate. Include a source of protein (lean meat, fish, Greek yogurt, beans, tofu, peanut butter) with every meal. Add lots of produce. And don’t skip starchy carbs like whole grain bread, brown rice, sweet potatoes, and bran cereals (yes, you need carbs even if you aren’t hiking 10 hours a day!)
    • Snack wisely. Eat something with protein, fiber, and a small amount of fat (e.g., 1/4 cup mixed nuts or string cheese with an apple) every 3-4 hours to control hunger.
    • Drink plenty of water.
    • Limit alcohol. Consider avoiding it entirely for at least a few weeks to speed up your recovery and prevent weight gain.
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    What NOT to do

    It’s easy to get swept up in diet fads. If you’re feeling cruddy or stressed about weight gain, you may be tempted to cut out just about everything (gluten, dairy, sugar, grains, etc.) and buy up Amazon’s supply of detox supplements. Google “how to detox” and you’ll get pages of nutrition recommendations – some great, some very poor or even dangerous. Unfortunately, extreme diets can sometimes remove the very nutrition hikers need to recover. This is especially true if you’re still active in your home life (you’re exercising at least an hour a day or have a very active job). My advice is to start simple with the recommendations above.

    If you don’t feel better in a few weeks, consider seeing a healthcare provider who can recommend bloodwork, support you with any health issues that have come up, and (if recommended) supervise an elimination diet to determine which foods are causing you problems.

    The bottom line

    You’ve just accomplished a major physical and mental feat. It may take some time to recover! Good nutrition can help. It doesn’t have to be perfect – sometimes just a small change (like swapping out the sugary afternoon snacks for a smoothie) can make a big difference. Be patient with yourself, and don’t hesitate to get support if you need it.

    Thru-Hiker's Recovery Smoothie

    Thru-Hiker’s Recovery Smoothie

    This recipe was originally created for Trailside Fitness participants hoping to reduce inflammation and improve gut health after a thru-hike. It's an easy way to make sure you're filling nutrition gaps while training for a hike or recovering at home! For a sweeter taste without having to add sweeteners, make sure the fruit you're using is ripe.
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    NUTRITION (per serving)

    cal/oz
    Calories 261 kcal
    PROTEIN 9 g
    CARBS 43 g
    Fiber 8 g
    Added Sugar 0 g
    Fat 7 g
    Sodium 172 mg
    Home Prep Time 5 minutes
    Field Prep Time 1 minute
    MEAL PREPDehydrator Not Required, No-Cook
    Diet TYPESGluten-Free, Low-Sodium, Low-Sugar, Vegetarian
    Servings1 serving

    INGREDIENTS
     

    • 1 kiwi
    • ½ apple
    • ½ cup dandelion greens (or other greens like spinach)
    • 1 Tbsp lemon juice
    • ¾ cup unsweetened vanilla almond milk
    • ½ cup plain yogurt
    • 2 Tbsp oats
    • 1 tsp flaxseed
    • ½ tsp fresh ginger (grated)
    • ¼ tsp turmeric

    INSTRUCTIONS (per serving)

    • Blend together and enjoy!
    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 AUTHOR:
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    Amelia Guinn, MS, RDN, is a registered dietitian and backpacker. She has a master’s degree in Food Science & Nutrition from Colorado State University and over 10 years of experience with nutrition for sports, chronic diseases, and weight management. In her free time, she enjoys competitive swimming, baking, and training hikes with her toddler.  She’s also a regular contributor to the Backcountry Foodie blog

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