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The Hiker Diet
Eat as much as you want of anything you want and still lose weight. Sound too good to be true?
Last fall I spent two months hiking the southernmost 700 miles of the Appalachian Trail. I had been looking forward to the fall colors, cool days, and cooler nights, but the weather was colder and nastier than normal. Daytime highs rarely got above the mid-40s; nighttime lows in the high teens were not uncommon. Some days I hiked through snow or pouring rain and/or gale force winds. Walking 12 to 15 miles a day in the cold temperatures, I was burning way more calories than I was consuming.
And I was consuming a lot. On the trail, a typical breakfast consisted of one or two cups of a whole milk/instant breakfast mix and several breakfast bars. I grazed continually throughout the day – on GORP (my favorite is a mix of dried fruit, cashews, M&M Peanuts, and beef jerky) and hard cheese and crackers -- and drank large quantities of water and Gatorade. Dinner was a two-serving size freeze-dried meal washed down with another cup of whole milk/instant breakfast mix. When I was lucky, I was able to supplement my diet with gifts of food from Trail Angels. Fresh fruit was the most welcome trail magic. A Coke was a close second.
One day in mid-November, just before noon, I met a middle-aged couple from Florida while traversing Rocky Mountain. They were out for a day hike and headed in the opposite direction. We exchanged pleasantries and continued on our respective ways.
After descending to Unicoi Gap, I stopped to eat lunch in the trailhead parking area. I had finished and was getting ready to leave when the Florida couple returned from their trek. They recognized me and asked if I wanted some fresh fruit. That’s an offer no hiker refuses. They presented me with a clear plastic bag containing an orange, a pear, and two apples. I picked the orange. They took the two apples. We chatted as we ate. Then they insisted I take the pear with me. It didn’t take much insisting.
They went to their car and brought back a package of pecan brittle and a small, mostly full box of chocolate turtles. “Pick one,” they said. I took one of the chocolate turtles. “Take all you want,” they encouraged. I ate all the chocolate turtles. “Why don’t you take some of this pecan brittle with you?” I put a big slab in my food bag for later. “Do you want some water?” They filled up my water bottle. “Would you like some Fritos?” We transferred a nearly full bag of Fritos into an empty Ziplock bag I was carrying. “How about some raisins and walnuts?” I topped up the plastic bag containing my GORP.
What I didn’t eat later that day, I finished off the next morning. And that was in addition to my normal meals.
Most days on the trail, I consumed over 3,000 calories (which is significantly more than the average overweight American male eats) and still lost 15 pounds. I met bigger men than I who had shed upwards of 40 pounds. If you’ve tried Weight Watchers, NutriSystem, Slim-Fast, the Atkins Diet, the South Beach Diet, and even Dr. Phil’s Ultimate Weight Solution and were dissatisfied with the results, don’t despair. Try the Hiker Diet.
Why will the Hiker Diet succeed when the others failed? Other diets emphasize the reduction of caloric intake. The Hiker Diet focuses on the other side of the equation – exercise. The math is simple. On the trail, a typical backpacker burns 500 to 700 calories per hour. That’s 4,000 to 6,000 calories per day. In 2000, the average American male consumed 2,618 calories each day (women consumed 1,877 calories). Thus, on a one day hike, an average man would burn 1,382 to 3,382 more calories than he consumed. Since 3,500 calories equals one pound, that works out to a weight loss of between one-half and one pound. In one day.
It gets even better. The heavier the hiker, the more calories s/he burns. That means the Hiker Diet automatically provides the greatest weight loss results to those with the greatest need.
And there’s more. The Hiker Diet provides an intimate connection with nature. Urbanization and technological development, among other things, have been severing that connection. An increasing body of scientific evidence supports the conclusion that connecting with nature enhances one’s psychological well-being. Besides the immediate “feel good” benefits, there may be lasting effects which counter the emotional factors that contribute to weight gain.
If weight loss is the only goal, recent research suggests that dieting alone is just as effective as a combination of diet and exercise. Inevitably, some will use these findings as an excuse not to exercise. But by so doing, they will forgo the significant physiological and psychological benefits to be gained by hiking or other forms of exercise. And what about those who do exercise? Working out at a gym or walking a mall is good. But I would contend that a walk in the woods is better.
Last year I spent over 100 days on the trail, traveling about 1,000 miles on foot. One hike lasted two months. Another was one month long. I also took a lot of shorter hikes, ranging from several hours to several days in length. Even on day hikes I usually carry a pack weighing at least 30 pounds. It’s a way of staying in shape for longer hikes. Plus, by increasing my weight, I burn more calories.
At first glance, the amount of time I spend hiking may seem extreme. But it averages out to roughly two hours a day. In contrast, the average American adult watches four hours of television a day. Needless to say, I don’t watch much TV. For most people, hiking half as much as I do – just one hour a day -- is easily doable. Over the course of a year, that would burn off a minimum of 182,500 calories, the equivalent of 52 pounds.
Of course, this does not translate to actual weight loss. How much, if any, weight loss occurs still depends upon calories consumed. At the very least, however, hiking one hour a day will reduce or eliminate further weight gain.
If you haven’t guessed by now, I am not overweight. In fact, I have never been overweight. Genetics is no doubt part of the reason. So is diet. But maintaining an active lifestyle, including hiking, is a major component.
My body mass index (BMI) hovers around the middle of the normal range. At the end of last year’s hiking season, I had lost a total of 20 pounds. That dropped my BMI from 22 to 20, still well within the normal range of 18.5-24.9. Ironically, I am frequently called “skinny.” That’s because people tend to define “normal” weight in comparison to those around them and by what they see in the media instead of in comparison to medical standards. Approximately two-thirds of American adults are currently overweight or obese. The idealized male “hunk” portrayed in movies, television programs, and magazines is bulky and burly. By comparison, I suppose I am skinny (although I prefer less loaded words such as “slim” or “lean.”).
The insidious consequence of this misperception of “normal” weight is that a sizable percentage of overweight men view their weight as normal and an even larger percentage of normal weight women see themselves as overweight. As a result, women who don’t need to lose weight try to. Men who should lose weight don’t. Parents of overweight children don’t see any problem. This seems to reflect a sad and unhealthy fact of life that perception all too often trumps reality.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been called skinny and encouraged to “put on a few pounds.” Shortly after one long distance hike, during which I lost almost 15 pounds, a well-meaning friend, concerned that I was ill, asked if I was okay. Women have indicated they find my lean physique to be less attractive. That’s the price of being a normal weight person in an overweight society. But it’s a price I’m willing to pay.