A guest post by George Harris:
‘How to create foods for your outdoor endeavours rather than rely on highly processed foods that are full of sugars, sweeteners, synthetic food products and fillers.’
You may be aware of the current trend toward eating more natural foods. There are blogs and websites popping up literally every minute that try to help you eat a more natural diet, a diet that is both tasty and makes you healthy. It seems that the tide is turning away from highly processed, commercialised foods and is moving toward a more natural approach. Why is this?
My experience with clients and many hours spent in research tells me that people have lost their confidence in ‘the system’ and are looking for their own routes to health. The reason they have lost their confidence? The advice they’ve been given just doesn’t work. If it did, we’d have fewer people dying from chronic illness, fewer obese people and a population that is getting healthier rather than more dis-eased.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a part of this changing tide. My goal in the fitness world has always been to help people feel good, look good and have bodies that work as good as they look! In helping clients (and myself, I’m a person with a body too!) achieve these goals I’ve had the chance to test, review and evaluate many different diet practices, methods of cooking and eating, and approaches to nourishment. What have these ‘experiments’ shown me?
That eating a diet filled with natural, unprocessed foods is the one that most effectively promotes health, wellness, energy levels and a good looking body.
How you go about fully applying that diet is something that I’ve covered elsewhere, what I want to show you here is how you could apply it in the great outdoors (and anytime you need high energy snack foods).
The GREAT Outdoors!
I recently did the Yorkshire Dales 3 Peaks and wanted to do it as ‘naturally’ as possible. You might be thinking, ‘there’s nothing natural about running 28 miles in 1 day, over 3 hills’, and you’d be right. But that doesn’t stop me wanting to be as natural as possible in its execution!
A little background…
I’d describe myself as an outdoor person. I was in the scouts when I was young and ever since I’ve enjoyed getting out and being in the countryside. My favoured pastimes are mountain biking, and recently I’ve also been enjoying hill running (which is such a different experience to hill walking as to render them almost totally different experiences, despite them taking place in exactly the same locations!). Now, I wouldn’t consider myself a natural endurance athlete; you can see from this picture that I’m not exactly built like your average hill runner or biker!
I don’t fancy taking a real punch from Ricky!
So, despite my obvious disadvantages, I’ve never shied away from a decent challenge in the outdoors; I’ve done over 10 mountain biking marathons (anywhere from 50km to 110km, or 3 hours to over 9 hours riding time), a road marathon and lots of two day hill walks. And the ‘Dales 3 Peaks is only a couple of hours driving from my house, so with my recent foray into hill running, me and my outdoor buddy Pete decided to have a crack at this challenge.
28 Miles, a broken down car and minimal training!
The totality of my training was some weekend biking, 3 long runs (about 10, 12 and 14 miles) and lots of weight training. Pete did even less, he managed a load of biking and 3 30 minute runs! I think we’d all agree, this is far from perfect, but hey, we weren’t about to try and hit any records, just get round the route.
The official course (which is run as a race every year – http://www.threepeaksrace.org.uk/) is 23.3 miles and this year was won in a time a little over 2 hours and 55 mins! Make no mistake, this is a tough course, as the profile below shows:
Click on the image to enlarge for optimal viewing.
Just to make it that little bit harder, the car we had travelled up in broke down as we arrived, so we had to leave it a couple of miles away from the designated start and finish point. Oh well, we were there, so we might as well just get on with it and see what happens…
But what about the food?
One thing that my multitude of experiences over the years has shown me is that there are a number of different ways you can fuel yourself in the hills. From stuffing my face with cakes (inevitably crushed and broken after being in my biking bag for a few hours), flapjacks and confectionary, to dried fruit and nuts, through sandwiches and packed lunches, to protein bars, shakes and energy gels and drinks. I’ve sampled the lot, with pretty varying effects.
Now, after many years of experimentation, I know that I personally work best on a mix of fast carbs, small amounts of protein and a tiny little bit of fat. What I also know is that when I’m not in the outdoors trying to exhaust myself, I feel much, much better when I eat unprocessed food. Yet what do you see in the list I made above? Not much in the way of natural foods…
Natural Food and The Hills
So here was the challenge; to fuel myself (and by extension, my buddy Pete, who was also happy to be a crash test dummy) soley by foods that were both highly energy dense, AND as natural as possible.
The first thing that came to mind was, ‘actually this is pretty simple, just eat dried fruit and nuts all day’. But the thought of eating just those foods all day made me feel a bit sad. I love my food, I love eating and I want to enjoy what I eat. Dried stuff is ok as a snack, but as the whole days-worth of food? No thanks. I needed more options. Cue nut based inspiration.
It’s A Dogs Life
One thing that was in our favour was the weight of our food. You see we had planned on cheating. We were going to get my dog to carry all our food!
Before you get all righteous and feel the need to call the RSPCA, take a look at the video below and note how damn big and athletic my dog is:
The other thing you need to know about my dog is that he’s done almost as much outdoor stuff as I have, and makes light work of pretty much anything I throw at him. The only time he’s truly been exhausted is when I did a 65km off road ride and ended up running the last 20km so that the dog could keep up. I guess we all have our limits!
By getting the dog to carry our food, two things would change;
1: We’d make it easier for us, and harder for the dog – this would simply bring him down to our level of exertion (and this ended up being the case, as the day wore on, he got more tired, but still ran the last bit back to the car faster than us!).
2: We didn’t have to be (as) concerned with the weight of the food we carried.
The Weight Is Off
Two foods that immediately came to mind when I started thinking about our food preparation were coconut macaroons and nut roast. Both of these are foods that I am fond of, and are both pretty high in calories. The calories are important, as on a day like the ‘Dales 3 Peaks Challenge’ you will burn somewhere in the range of 800-1300 calories per hour, depending on body size/weight, speed and exertion level, and over the course of a day will want to take in over 5000 calories from your food. Just to give you an idea about how much food this is, we’re talking about over 50 bananas worth of food!
So off I went in search of some recipes for macaroons and nut roast. And, I’m sure you’re aware, the internet has more than its fair share of recipes available to you!
I found two nut roast recipes that looked like they’d taste nice, and one for the macaroons. I’ve put a recipe list together at the bottom of this article, should you want to replicate my culinary experiments.
Have you eaten Coconut Macaroons before? They’re pretty tasty, but they’re also chock full of calories, and if there’s one thing that we can be sure of, it’s that eating food that’s too high in calories (regardless of where they come from) is right at the root of our obesity epidemic.
The basic ingredient list reads as follows:
- Shredded or dessicated coconut
- Egg white
- That’s it
You can put other things in as well, and me being me, I had to play around with the recipe. For a start I wanted to massively reduce the sugar content, but still wanted them to be palatable. So a swap of processed sugar to natural sugar in the form of dried fruit was desireable. Then I decided that I wanted to make two types. One that followed the original recipe as closely as possible, so I could set a benchmark, and one that was a modification, so I could see how far I could push the envelope.
Here’s a pic of what these ended up looking like:
The ones at the front are the ‘George variety’, the ones at the back are the original. The taste? I liked the modified ones, and my running mate Pete liked the originals….
What did I change? I swapped all the processed sugar for a blend of dates and goji berries. I also added in some sesame seeds to help them bind together. I blended the fruit and sesame seeds together before mixing them with the egg and coconut, as I wanted them to be as smooth and paste-like as possible. This would enable the sugar to dissolve or melt more easily, and the seeds to go mushy and free to bind the rest of the ingredients together (I suspected that part of the job of the sugar was to melt and bind – a bit like turning liquid when you make caramel, but not quite cooking as much, to keep the colour from turning brown).
Here’s a basic macaroon recipe link: http://www.nigella.com/recipes/view/coconut-macaroons-145
And here’s a video showing you how to make them:
The Nut Roast
The nut roast was more of a challenge for me, as I hadn’t eaten nut roast for many a year, so didn’t feel quite as confident in experimenting with the ingredients (not knowing the precise roles each ingredient plays meant I could change an ingredient, and lose its properties in the recipe). So that meant I had to find a couple of recipes that fitted my goals right from the beginning.
Here’s two that I found:
I guess the first thing to admit here is this: Everything in life is a compromise.
So what’s the compromise here? It’s that the need for a high energy outdoor/racing diet composed of natural food is going to have to use some vegetable fats.
You might be asking why this is a problem, and you’d not be the first of the people over the years that I’ve worked with who had been kept in the dark about ‘the truth about fat’.
Vegetable fats and oils can be poisonous!
This is not the place to fully go into why veg fats are dangerous, but here’s a quick overview:
Vegetable fats are mostly polyunsaturated, this means that they are pretty unstable in an environment that’s high in oxygen. Your body is such an atmosphere. When exposed to an oxygen rich atmosphere they oxidise and oxidised materials cause damage in the body. What sort of damage? How about low but chronic levels of inflammation? And that’s a problem because it seems that low level inflammation is actually at the heart of all our chronic diseases!
So the compromise for me was to eat a diet that is higher than normal in polyunsaturated fats (I normally have virtually none from anything other than the occasional bit of fish and a weekly made loaf of bread from wheat grain I’ve ground myself, this is the only way you get good fats from grain produce, you simply don’t get it in processed grain products of ANY sort!), yet one that is also very high in calories. I also didn’t want to use any commercial bread product, but knew that the breadcrumbs played a crucial role in binding everything together. So I made sure that I had some home ground, home baked bread at hand for the crumby stuff.
The making of these loaves was actually pretty simple, I followed the instructions and they came out just fine. Stupidly, I forgot to take any pics of these, but the cottage cheese one looked somewhere between an omelette and a block of dried gloss paint, and the sundried tomato one looked like a normal nut roast! Fortunately they both tasted fine.
Here’s a pic of what my kitchen looked like once I was done:
The Performance Test
Of course, even if these foods taste good, if they don’t fuel performance in the hills then they’re a waste of time. Fortunately they did work, and even tasted ok all day. Not great, but OK.
Interestingly the cottage cheese one, despite being a little bland, was the one that remained most palatable as the day went on. This was because the sundried tomato version was a a little too dry and became cloying after a couple of mouthfuls, where the cottage cheese one was very moist and very easy to eat.
Next time I would have to take a tub of home made tomato relish with me to make this more desirable, which kinda defeats the purpose of DIY hill food (it should be simple and self contained, not a whole picnic to be laid out!).
Full Food List
Here’s what we ate over the course of the day:
- 2 nut roasts (each was the sze of a house brick). Actually the dog ate half the sundried tomato one as it became too dry to stomach!
- 15 or so coconut macaroons (each the size of a golf ball). I ended up eating most of these as Pete didn’t really like them.
- Some emergency fudge, which got eaten after about 5 hours when we both started feeling very empty and energy-less. The fudge perked us right up, which shows me that we weren’t processing as much glucose as our exercising muscles wanted.
- Loads of dried fruit; figs, dates, sundried bananas, sundried pears, mulberries, and goji berries. We probably ate about a large bag of crips-worth of this stuff in total. This was where we were aiming to get our fast processed sugars from, but this failed a little, for reasons I’ll go into in the next section.
- Boiled eggs, 3 each. Providing a good mix of fats and proteins and some brain food in the form of choline.
- Cheese, ok this isn’t totally paleo, but it sure tastes nice and is very high in calories.
That’s it. You might be wondering how the dog coped with both running with us and carrying our food? Well I didn’t leave him out, I brought along a 1.5kg luncheon meat roll for him, which he had in about four big bits. Needless to say, he wolfed those down, and still had lots of energy when we’d finished, although his carrying load was getting lighter as the day progressed!
Sadly, I can’t report that this set of foods was a total success. We got to about 20 miles and felt whacked, that’s in addition to needing the emergency fudge after about 10 miles. Fortunately for us there was a pub a little after 20 miles, so we stopped there and got some food over the bar. I felt the need for salt so got a couple of packets of crisps, and a couple of chocolate bars. Pete opted for a sandwich. We both had a pint of coke each as well. This sorted us right out for an hour or so, until we had burned through that lot and started feeling a bit weak again.
You’ve done well to read this far, nearly 3000 words later!
I’d say that we were partially successful in our attempt to do the 3 peaks as naturally as possible. The big failing was a lack of carbs that turn into glucose when digested. The dried fruit has very limited amounts of glucose in it, and fructose needs to be processed by the liver before it can be turned into glucose, and your muscles can’t use fructose as fuel, therefore the rate of conversion in the liver is highly limiting, and can’t keep up with the 800+ calories per hour that you might need during an event like this.
Next time I would aim for some foods that have a base of root vegetables, these will be pretty easily digested, as the cooking process renders them more digestible, and all their energy will turn into glucose when they’re digested.
Something Totally Different?
The other option for us is to go in the other direction entirely and go totally artificial. Pete has said that he wants to try this, as he wants to know how much quicker we can do it when fuelled by highly processed (and therefore highly digestible, or fast digesting) foods. Think sports drinks, protein drinks, jelly babies and energy gels….
What can you learn from this?
There’s some great news here; if you don’t want to run 28 miles over 3 big hills every day, you don’t need to feel concerned about your ability to deliver sufficient carbs to fuel your performance!
In stark contrast, it’s actually really easy to fuel your day without ever having to go near any grains, pulses (beans and legumes), dried fruit or anything at all that’s been processed. If you eat copious amounts of veg, some meat or fish, the occasional bit of diary (and even then I’d aim for those diary productst that are cultured – that doesn’t mean that they behave well at a party, it means they’ve got live stuff in them, you know, like natural yoghurt or creme fraiche), small amounts of fruit as your palette desires, and have an infrequent and small application of nuts and seeds, you’ll deliver enough energy to fuel your workouts, recover from life’s stressors, build your health and feel great. You might even lose a bucketload of weight and perform better than you have in years. Sounds like a great list of benefits to me!
How can you apply this to your own situation?
This is the key, and this is where your life really takes off. But I’m going to save that nugget of gold for the next article, how beautifully frustrating.
Yours in health and unprocessed food,
George Harris, BSc (and lots of other letters that make me sound highly qualified)