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During the summer of 1999, I spent three weeks as a nutrition intern in the food rations department, (affectionately known as “The Gulch”) at the National Outdoor Leadership School’s main hub in Lander, Wyoming. During the busy summer months hundreds of pounds of food are packed each week for expeditions into the nearby Wind River and Absaroka mountain ranges. As a graduate student and future Registered Dietitian (RD), I assessed the field rations for nutritional adequacy and balance, and provided nutrition education relevant to wilderness travel for students and staff.

After speaking with dozens of young, fit, healthy NOLS folk, I was struck by the extent to which the popular high-protein/low-carbohydrate fad diets at that time had infiltrated this population of outdoor adventurers who were not focused on weight loss (at least not consciously). The late 90s saw the resurgence of the Atkins Diet and addition of The Zone, South Beach, and several other dietary regimens that demonize carbohydrates and place protein on the high throne of nutritional supremacy.

I knew protein obsession had a firm grip over mainstream America, especially those wanting to shed a few pounds. I had no idea that despite hundreds of sports nutrition studies and years of expert guidance that supports the key role of carbohydrates in sports performance, carb-phobia had spread to athletes –including students and outdoor professionals spending weeks at a time in the backcountry. This trend was the impetus behind the project to research and write a nutrition field guide in 2000 that evolved into NOLS Backcountry Nutrition: Eating Beyond the Basics (Stackpole Books, 2008).

Since that summer in 1999 there have been dozens of dietary fads many of which are reflected in field rations at NOLS and even more so in the packs of individuals planning their own backcountry adventures. Some Fad Diets are rooted in concerns about health, the environment, and a predominant food system that can be problematic for both of these things. Many of these diets cut out components of food (i.e. gluten, wheat, added sugar) or entire food groups (i.e. dairy, grains, meat), while others emphasize eating foods in their natural state or with minimal processing, produced organically and sourced locally and sustainably.

Those of us who choose to spend significant time in the backcountry likely share the hope that these latter changes linked to higher quality foods, and knowing how our food is produced and where it comes from are positive trends with multiple benefits that will continue to grow. Unfortunately, Fad Diets based more on personal testimonials than science continue to dominate the nutritional landscape and may not be the best approach to backcountry fueling.

Currently the “Paleo” diet has replaced the collection of high-protein fads of years past in popularity. Purportedly modeled after the dietary habits of our Paleolithic ancestors, there are versions of Paleo that target athletes, dieters, people with certain health conditions, and everyone in between.

Paleo’s basic premise of returning to simple, whole foods that pre-date modern agriculture as a way to avoid or mitigate chronic diseases isn’t a terrible idea. Extending the benefits to athletes based on the idea that Paleolithic humans were strong and physically active as a function of primitive lifestyles is a bit of a stretch given that performance was not likely on the Paleolithic human radar. The bigger issue is that we don’t really know what early humans ate on a daily basis. (I’m pretty sure it was not “Paleo Blueberry Muffins” or “Oven-baked Pecan Pork Chops” however!)

Interestingly, if the Paleo diet trend were more authentic it could be quite useful for us wilderness travelers. Ways to incorporate insects, worms or small critters easily roasted over an open fire, and foraging ideas for wild plants, seeds and berries could lighten our packs and give us kudos for sustainably sourced rations. See this Outside magazine online article about insect products.

Of course real life stories of backcountry adventurers whose food ran out, didn’t arrive for a resupply, or was eaten by wild animals forcing them to forage bitter greens and hunt squirrels, don’t sound like much fun.

Ironically, a wide variety of dietary fads can be easily accommodated in the backcountry, with the exception of our modern incarnation of a Paleo diet. Unless you are consistently hunting small animals, fishing, and foraging, the fresh foods advocated by Paleo are too heavy and perishable to provide a sensible field ration. And, there is only so much jerky, dried fruit and nuts your digestive system will tolerate - especially since staying adequately hydrated is already challenging in many highly active backcountry scenarios.

The exclusion of legumes and grains, including those enjoyed by indigenous cultures AND at least some Paleolithic humans, along with rigid rules about anything even slightly processed are difficult to reconcile with a backcountry diet that supports high levels of physical activity - without excess weight. Mary--What do you mean by “excess weight”? carrying it in pack? While anecdotes on the internet abound extolling the benefits of Paleo for sports performance (including backcountry activities), credible scientific research is lacking. Even the best-selling book The Paleo Diet for Athletes (an objective review of the book available here) admits that additional carbohydrates are necessary for endurance sports performance (and apparently sports drinks and gels are okay – just don’t touch quinoa or potatoes!).

The real problem with taking any Fad Diets into the backcountry is that when we restrict the variety of foods in our pack, we risk suboptimal or inadequate nutrition. This is especially true with carbohydrate-rich foods whose main nutritional role is efficiently providing energy to working muscles and brain. Limiting these foods in the front country may not be a big deal, even for athletes who have time to recover between bouts of activity. In the backcountry however, when hiking, climbing, boating, and hauling heavy packs are the day’s agenda, and even activities of daily living such as cooking and setting up camp require more energy than our everyday lives, skimping on carbs can mean sluggish performance, grumpy moods, sore muscles, and poor sleep.

So as you prepare food for your backcountry adventure you may want to incorporate the true keys to human survival throughout our history that also promote optimal nutrition: dietary diversity and flexibility.

Additional links that may be of interest:

1. Article addressing Paleo for athletes by sports nutrition expert Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD

2.  ED Talk “Debunking the Paleo Diet” by Christina Warinner (Archeological scientist) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BMOjVYgYaG8

And because not everyone will be convinced they need to not follow Paleo in the backcountry:

Backcountry Paleo: Personal story supports adoption of Paleo; recipes for backcountry use

Paleo Traileo: More personal stories and lots of recipes

Paleo Meals to Go: Even more personal stories and products for backcountry or Paleo “on-the-go”

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