The biggest puzzle for those of us with diabetes - and anyone who cares about his or her health - is what to eat while we are away from civilization on the trail.
We need our exercise, and many of us find that hiking in the woods or mountains to be the most enjoyable way to get it. But we still need to balance that exercise with wholesome food.
It’s been 64 years since I started hiking in the mountains and 13 years since a doctor diagnosed my diabetes. In that time I have ever so gradually learned what works best to provide the energy that I need for my hikes without reverting to the unhealthy choices that the marketplace offers to hikers and others alike.
Outdoor stores, like my favorite, REI, offer a huge selection of what they consider to be adequate trail food. Almost without exception I don’t consider their choices to be anywhere near satisfactory.
My choices so far are geared to day hikes of no more than eight hours. In that time we do need a meal or two. For the past few years I haven’t been backpacking on overnight hikes, although I just invested in a new backpack, tent, and sleeping bag. So I may have additional recommendations based on what’s coming for me.
Meanwhile, however, I have found more than enough excellent trail foods. The mainstay of my diet on the trail as well as for breakfast on the drive to the trailhead (since I want to get there as early as possible to avoid afternoon thunderstorms), has been the obvious one. Energy bars.
But not just any energy bar, many of which don’t draw a clear line separating them from nothing more than repackaged and relabeled candy bars. What makes a good energy bar?
I rely on organic quinoa bars and granola bars from Fiona’s Natural Foods in Boulder, Colorado, where I just happen to live. Of the five such bars my favorite is the Chocolate Chip Peanut Butter bar.
Fiona Simon, the founder and CEO of Fiona’s Natural Foods, tells me that this bar is most people’s favorite too. The difference between her energy bars and the rest, Fiona tells me, is that hers release their nutrients slowly, not in a spike or a rush.
That’s just the same concept of low-glycemic carbohydrates, which for years I have written about in my first book, in magazines, and on my website. The main sweetener that she uses is organic agave nectar, which is very low-glycemic.
A staple of the outdoor world for years has been beef jerky. But it’s far too salty for my taste or my health. Recently I discovered Tofurky Jurky from Turtle Island Foods in Hood River, Oregon. Both the original and peppered are delicious, vacuum-sealed organic tofu - mostly protein - a low in sodium.
Another product that I rely on is individual servings of peanut or almond butter from Justin’s Nut Butter in Boulder. For years I abstained from peanut or almond butter, even though they are very low glycemic. I love peanut and almond butter so much that I couldn’t control myself. Now, however, I can stop after eating a single packet of Justin’s dry roasted peanut or almond butter with 190 calories per package.
Justin Gold, the founder and owner of Justin’s Nut Butter, is a former REI employee. After searching in vain for good trail food, he tells me, he decided that he would have to make his own.
Mike MacFerrin reminded me of Jusin’s Nut Butter. Mike and I have at least three things in common: We have diabetes, we are avid hikers, and we live in Boulder.
Mike’s web page about "Hiking with Diabetes" has many other great suggestions for what to eat on the trail, especially when we start to go out on longer hikes. And I do mean longer. Mike’s website details his experiences on solo hikes of eight, 16, 17, and even 31 days.
For years the third trail food that I have relied on is raw almonds. Joanne Saltzman, the founder and director of The School of Natural Cookery in Boulder, also recommends almonds - but not raw.
It’s better to either dry roast or soak and dehydrate the almonds than to eat them raw, she tells me. "Either way makes them more digestible than raw."
Her logic is that nuts and seeds are designed to be dormant. That means their nutrients aren’t so available when raw.
How about buying almonds that are already roasted? It’s better to do your own, because roasted nuts quickly go rancid, she says.
I just took her advice and roasted a cup of raw almonds in an oven preheated to 300 degrees for about 15 minutes, turning them a couple of times. She recommends either a glass or metal pie pan.
I have also tried hard to reduce my salt intake. But we do need some salt, particularly when we are active, like on the trails. The salt also adds flavor and improves the digestive quality of the nuts, she says. So Joanne recommends dissolving about 1/16th of a teaspoon of salt in a tiny bit of water per cup of almonds.
My own dry roasted and lightly salted almonds certainly taste better than either raw almonds or store-bought. However, her suggestion to soak and dehydrate the almonds might be better, because it would avoid the AGEs that cooking fatty food produces.
One of the people who has thought the longest and hardest about the best choices in trail food is Karen LaVine, a Certified Diabetes Educator in Albuquerque and an avid hiker.
She’s planning a big hike right now and says that she is looking for foods that have a high density of calories per gram of weight and yet are relatively low in AGEs.
"Anything high in fats will have a significant amount of AGEs," Karen tells me. "Even an avocado has 473 kU of AGEs per a 30 gram serving. Olive oil comes in at 120 kU/ml. So I think the best compromise for hiking is raw nuts."
She is also considering vacuum-packed salmon, hard boiled eggs, and dried fruit. She recommends that we stay away from power bars, which tend to have additives that don’t contribute to our health, especially partially hydrogenated oils. She also suspects that at least some of them may be high in AGEs.
"If one is going to eat a meal replacement bar or any other processed food, make sure its low in fat," Karen says. "When people ask about power bars, I steer them towards meal replacement drinks instead. The only ones I’ve found so far that are both low in fat and carbs and high in protein are the AdvantEdge Carb Control drinks."
"I do wish there was an easy way to determine AGE levels of foods that don’t happen to be listed on Dr. Vlassara’s tables," Karen says.
"It would sure help when one is trying to make sound nutritional decisions. Of course, choosing what to eat is always a compromise one way or another, and one can end up getting obsessive-compulsive about it. So the bottom line is this: Choose something that you believe is basically healthy and tastes good - and get outside and hike"
David Mendosa is a journalist who learned in 1994 that he has type 2 diabetes, which he now writes about exclusively. He has written thousands of diabetes articles, two books about it, created one of the first diabetes websites, and publishes the monthly newsletter, “Diabetes Update.” His very low-carbohydrate diet, current A1C level of 5.3, and BMI of 19.8 keep his diabetes in remission without any drugs. He can be found on Twitter @davidmendosa and on Facebook at David Mendosa.