It’s Eat Better, Eat Together Month, and today’s post is all about how to eat to fuel your body. And hike rim to rim of the Grand Canyon.
How to Fuel-Up Without a Gas Station
“Am I supposed to eat the stuff in the packet now?” one of my students asked me. We sat around the water spigot on sun-warmed boulders near Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
“Not yet,” I said. “You’ll want to save that for the stretch between Indian Garden and the top of the south rim.”
“Why?” another student asked.
“She said it will work like rocket fuel to get us up the switchbacks,” another student answered for me.
“That’s right,” I assured them. “The packet contains quick energy. You’ll need eat to fuel your body through the last four miles.” I didn’t remind them they would ascend almost 4000 feet in those last 4.8 miles.
“Do we add more Gatorade powder to our water packs now?” the first student asked.
“Yes. I hope everyone has finished their first three liters of Gatorade.” I looked around the bedraggled group. We’d risen at four in the morning to near-freezing temperatures at our campsite just outside the north rim entrance of Grand Canyon National Park.
I knew the cool morning temperatures could make them forget to hydrate. We’d made it to the river before noon, and the bottom of the canyon felt more like Phoenix than Flagstaff. “Has everyone been eating something every hour?” I asked.
“How come you tell us not to eat between meals and now you’re telling us to eat every hour?” one of them joked.
“You don’t usually hike for 12 hours,” I replied. “You need to eat to fuel your body and keep your engines from stopping. Helicopter rides to the top cost more than we can afford.”
We spent a few more minutes talking strategy. Keep cool through the hot section of trail next to the river by soaking yourself before we head out. Drink your now-partially frozen bottle of Powerade once we pass River’s Rest and start up the Devil’s Corkscrew.
“You guys are doing awesome, I assured them. We should make it to the shade below Indian Garden before the worst heat of the day hits. Make sure you get your hats and clothes wet in the stream before you head up canyon. And drink that Gatorade!”
“I don’t like Gatorade,” one of the boys said.
“No problem,” I said, “just eat some of these salt packets.”
“It’s better than barfing or getting leg cramps,” I assured him. He reluctantly poured salt on his hand and licked it. “We’ll rest here another 20 minutes before we head out. You can go back to the creek and soak your feet, change your socks, and eat some more.”
I’d spent hours agonizing over what food to put in the kids’ hydration packs. Although each pack had room for three liters of water, they didn’t have a lot of extra room for food. The night before they had played Tetris trying to fit the salty snacks, granola bars, boiled eggs, bagels, beef jerky, and cashews into the packs.
Every website I’d read about hiking rim to rim in the Grand Canyon in one day talked about the need to eat to fuel your body constantly throughout the day and to stay hydrated. Unprepared hikers—especially those who don’t replenish the electrolytes and salt in their bodies—can suffer from heat exhaustion. Heat exhaustion can quickly turn into heat stroke.
The Dangers of a Dry, Hot Climate
The dry climate and hot temperatures at the bottom can extract up to a quart of water an hour from your body without your even realizing it. According to the National Park Service, a person hiking uphill during the hottest part of the day in the summer can lose up to two quarts of water per hour.
I knew we had to fuel our bodies if we wanted to complete the hike without hitting the wall, or suffering from heat exhaustion, heat stroke, or hyponatremia (a dangerous condition where you have too much water and not enough salt in your body). I’ve hit the wall a time or two, and I didn’t enjoy either experience.
If you’ve never heard the term before, I’ll explain. When you don’t fuel your body properly, you get to a point where you can’t stand up without having your heart race and you have absolutely no energy or motivation to move.
The Hardest Part of the Hike Requires the Best Fuel
As we headed up Devil’s Corkscrew, I reminded everyone once again to hydrate, eat, and splash water on themselves at every opportunity. The fastest hiker had passed me, and I hurried to catch up with him.
I knew the other staff members would ensure the remaining seven students would reach the top. When we reached Indian Garden, the thermometer read 100˚, but it didn’t feel that hot. My student assured me it felt more like 80˚. “Get your clothes wet here,” I cautioned, “the hardest four miles come next.”
“And this is where I eat the packet of gooey stuff, right?” he asked.
“You can have it now, or wait until Three-Mile House,” I told him. “I’m headed to the bathroom, and then I’ll start hiking again.”
“Ok.” He wandered back to the water fountain.
When I came out of the outhouse, I didn’t see him, so I took off hiking.
I prayed each student had properly fueled their bodies to make the final push to the top. Who knows, when dealing with teenagers, what they’ll pay attention to? Hopefully, they’d listened to all my advice. And hopefully, I, too, had fueled my body properly and would easily make it up the last four miles.
Four hours later, the last student stumbled up the Bright Angel Trail below the Kolb Brother’s studio. “I did it!” he exclaimed with a happy-tired grin. “And I ate all the food, too.”
I smiled to myself and gave him a high-five. “Good for you! The ice-cream place has closed for the day, but you made it in time for supper back at camp.”
If You Eat to Fuel Your Body, You’ll Make it to the Top!
They did it! All eight of my students had conquered the 24-mile hike. I felt like a proud momma. They had listened, they had persevered, they had done what few people ever do. I hoped they would hold this experience close and remember how they had conquered the Canyon the next time they faced adversity. And maybe, just maybe, all my talk about how to eat to fuel your body would stick with them, too.
Just like typical teenagers, they would prefer to survive on Hot Cheetos, energy drinks, white bread, French fries, and hamburgers. We’d spent plenty of time beforehand talking about the importance of eating the right fuel to get the job done.
Thoughts About Communicating Healthy Attitudes About Food to Teens
The older I get, the more I understand how I failed to teach my own kids about food in healthy ways. Part of my failure came from my own unhealthy relationship with food (something I’ve worked on a lot in the last year). And part of my failure came from the way I talked about food to our kids.
As with religion, we often make food something it was never meant to be—comfort, reward, good, bad, healthy, unhealthy. If I could have a do-over, I would focus on the importance of eating well to fuel your body.As with religion, we often make food something it was never meant to be: comfort, reward, good, bad, unhealth, health. Instead, focus on why we need to eat to fuel our body. #healthylifestyle #eatbettereattogethermonth Click To Tweet
1. Eat to Fuel Your Body
We eat to fuel our bodies, and we need to teach our children how different fuel works differently on each of our ‘engines.’ Just like vehicles need different types of fuel (diesel, premium, regular, mid-grade), we all need different types of fuel at different times in our lives or before different activities.
We need to explain this concept to our kids early on in life by talking naturally about the foods we set on the table and why we make the choices we make in our own lives. “I eat salad at the start of my meals, so I make sure and get the vitamins and minerals I need before I fill up on other things.”
2. Don’t Label Foods
“That’s fuchi,” I told our daughters, pointing at a can of soda. “You don’t want that.” Fuchi means ‘disgusting’ in Spanish. Lying to kids about food probably isn’t the best strategy, although I really don’t like soda.
When we label foods, we attach virtue or guilt to their consumption. I grew up vegetarian, and it turned into a source of pride for me—even though I didn’t eat to fuel my body. The meme that proclaims, “Vegetarianism—eat sweets, not meats!” explains it all.
At this point in my life, I have no interest in eating meat (although my siblings all went through meat-eating stages). I eat to fuel my body, and I know I can do amazing things (such as hike rim to rim) on a vegetarian diet. When we eat to fuel our body, we learn to avoid emotional eating, boredom eating, and eating to please other people.
3. Age-Appropriate Information
Try to keep discussions about food age appropriate. Tell your five-year-old, “I eat a few potato chips every once in a while, because I enjoy the crispy, salty taste.” Rather than “Don’t eat potato chips because they are full of fat and unhealthy chemicals.”
“I eat dark chocolate to make me smarter, but I don’t have to eat a lot of it.” Rather than “Chocolate is bad for you.”
Let kids research different foods and work out their own decisions on whether what they feel like eating will fuel their bodies properly. As your kids mature, let them perform experiments with different fuels.
For example, let them eat all the Hot Cheetos they want to (or dessert), and have them analyze how they feel immediately after, after 30 minutes, and after an hour. Discuss whether or not their choices did a good job fueling their bodies.
4. Offer Non-Food Rewards
I find it easy to offer food as a reward, and I often forget non-food rewards still motivate kids. Instead of offering a piece of candy when my students passed a certain number of math objectives, I started offering vinyl stickers. They valued the stickers more than the candy, much to my surprise.
When we always use food as a reward (especially sweets), we give the wrong message. I rewarded myself with a small waffle cone when I finished the hike, but I also bought a cool t-shirt to commorate my accomplishment. The shirt will outlast the ice-cream cone and I an enjoy the feeling of accomplishment every time I wear the shirt.
5. Set a Good Example
If you want to pass on a healthy relationship with food to your kids, don’t force them to eat things they don’t like. Don’t make them finish everything on their plate. Young children intuitively know how much they need, and we mess with their intuition when we force them to clean their plate.
Talk about the choices you make and when you do when you serve yourself too much. “This looked so good I took a huge helping, but I can’t eat it all. I’ll save it for lunch tomorrow.”
Or “I served myself based on my eyes, not what I need to eat to fuel my body. I’ll just save my leftovers for later.”
Kids and teens pay attention to what we do as well as what we say.
Eating Together Provides Powerful Times to Talk About the Fuel We Eat
During Eat Better, Eat Together Month, take time to eat meals with your family. Talk about how to eat to fuel your body. If you’ve turned food into something it shouldn’t be, share what you’ve learned with everyone around the table. Eating together provides a powerful platform for positive talk about food and health.
You family doesn’t have to commit to hiking the Grand Canyon from rim to rim. But you can plan a challenging excursion as a family. It just may motivate everyone to think about food differently.