Iron is an important mineral for athletes and thru-hikers. It is an essential part of healthy red blood cells, which deliver oxygen throughout your body. Anytime your muscles are working hard, they are taking in and using oxygen. Oxygen helps our muscles make energy out of glucose. Therefore, the more red blood cells you have, the easier it will be to utilize oxygen, and subsequently use your muscles to climb mountains. This becomes especially important at high elevations, like in the Sierras, where the air is thin and it’s harder to get oxygen. With less oxygen available in the air, the efficiency of oxygen delivery, by healthy red blood cells, becomes vital. Getting high quality food-sources of iron is the best way to ensure healthy red blood cells.
There are two kinds of dietary iron: heme- and non-heme. Heme-iron comes from the blood and muscles of animals, while non-heme iron is found in plants. You may have heard heme-iron referred to as the “higher-quality” source of iron, since it easier for our digestive tract to absorb. While heme-iron is more readily absorbed, there is more to the story. Recent studies have shown heme-iron to be significantly associated with diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and even cancer. An abundance of iron in the body can act as a pro-oxidant, meaning it contributes to oxidizing cholesterol and free radicals. This leads to inflammation and even the development of atherosclerosis. Since it is so readily absorbed, we risk iron overload and the subsequent toxic effects. To learn more about this, check out this NutritionFacts.Org Video.
So how is one to get enough iron, if this most readily-absorbed kind has such risks? Well, if you follow a plant-based diet, it is naturally nutrient dense. That means you’re getting a bunch more vitamins and minerals like vitamin C, B vitamins, beta-carotene, vitamin K, zinc, calcium, and… IRON! You can eat the same amount of calories in comparison to the standard american diet, but get multiple times the nutrients. With this nutrient dense way of eating, our body is allowed to make its own decisions about what to absorb and not. So if we need more iron in our blood, a message gets sent to our gut cells to absorb as much as possible! If we don’t, then those cells just take in a little bit. By consuming a simple and wholesome diet, our body is able to naturally self-regulate in terms of what vitamins and minerals it needs.
There are also things we can do to improve iron absorption. Eating vitamin C rich foods in combination with iron-rich foods facilitates iron absorption. Vitamin C can be found in almost any fruit or vegetable. For example, add molasses (iron rich!) to your morning smoothie that has berries and bananas (vitamin C rich!). Make a kale and citrus (vitamin C!) salad with pumpkin seeds (iron!) sprinkled on top. Incorporate diced tomatoes (vitamin C!) into your beans (iron!) and rice dish. Secondly, there are some things that inhibit iron absorption, like caffeine. So wait a couple hours after that smoothie before drinking a cup of coffee, or vice verse. Thirdly, milk, dairy products and eggs have been shown to bind iron in the digestive tract, preventing absorption. So consuming a plant-based diet, high in vitamin C and void of any dairy or eggs, is ideal. This makes it actually easier to get iron on a vegan diet than a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet. This blog post by Matt Frazier, of No Meat Athlete, is a great resource to learn more about iron in a plant-based diet.
One final concern for iron is blood loss. As women loose blood monthly, the heavier a woman’s menstrual cycle, the higher risk they have for iron-deficiency anemia. An advantage of being on a diet free of animal products is that it is also free of added and naturally occurring hormones in meat and dairy. Replacing animal foods with plant foods further decreases hormone levels through the action of fiber, helping to rid the body of excess estrogen. This makes for lighter, easier menstrual cycles, minimizing blood loss.
It can take up to 3 months to increase iron stores. So in the context of long-distance hiking and climbing mountains, it is a good idea to maintain a well-balanced, wholesome diet not only during these activities, but before and after. It’s a long-term investment with high payoffs for a long, happy life, full of adventures!
Iron Content of Foods
*Adult Males should aim for about 8 mg/d. Adult females should aim for about 18 mg/d.
** Data sourced from http://www.care2.com/greenliving/12-top-vegan-iron-sources.html
There was a point on the PCT, walking through the desert - exhausted and hungry, when I couldn't think of many reasons to keep going. I was simply tired of walking. The only reason not to quit was because we were SO CLOSE! Oh, so close to the end. Well, that's how this internship feels sometimes. Since returning from the trail in November, I haven't stayed in one location for more than 2 months. I've spent the last 3 months floating between a friend's house in Seattle and Mud's cute little trailer, an hour outside the city. Now I find myself in California again for the final rotation of this internship. Working for free, checking off competencies. And then I wonder, why do I even want to BE a dietitian? Couldn't I be one of those people that just hikes for their whole life?
It has been a constant struggle to find housing, shelter, and, subsequently, a good place to make food. There is something freeing about this on the trail. Food, water, shelter. That's all you need, all you think about. And usually, you find it. Yet back in the real world, the expectations of society are so high such that you can't spend too much time arranging food, water and shelter. You gotta go to work, sit in traffic, write emails. Maslow was on to something with his hierarchy of needs. It's hard to contribute to society and achieve self-actualization when you're not quite sure where you're going to sleep, or if you'll be able to make a tofu-rice-noodle-salad tonight. Well, for now, I'm happy to say that I've at least found a consistent place to sleep and make tofu-rice-noodle-salads for a couple months. So, on to contributing to society.
Since starting my clinical rotation, I've been seeing first hand the toxic effect that our food has on folks. People with uncontrolled diabetes come into the hospital and leave with an amputated leg. People with untreated gallstones that have caused their gallbladder to actually become stone itself. Hypertension, GERD, cardiovascular disease. They get put on medications with side-effects, then more medications to manage the side-effects, until taking 12 pills every morning becomes normal and our bodies are slaves to the chemicals we put in it. We do what we can to help them in the hospital, but the real help comes through lifestyle and diet changes. By the time they get to the hospital, it is often too late. People are struggling, dying, because of their food choices.
And then there's the water. Our food choices are sucking the earth dry. California is parched, depleted. Even the lush and plentiful state of Washington is in a drought due to low snowfall. More on that later.
For those reasons and more, I cannot become one of those people that just hikes for their whole life. There is work to do here in the real world. Yet! I deeply hope that I can be one of those people that finds a healthy balance between time in the office and time in the wilderness, time writing and time hiking. I don't know yet what that will look like, where I will live, what trails I will hike, what I will do every day. I can only hope that my continued drifting will take me where I need to be.
With all the uncertainty and instability of the past year, there is one thing I know for sure - I gotta get back on the trail! If I'm really gonna be a dietitian, in an office, in a city, with the emailing and the chart-note-writing and the multi-tasking, I need to spend a few weeks on the trail before I do it. I just gotta walk in a straight line for a while, with my food, shelter and water on my back.
As I get settled here in California, I hope to write more frequent blog posts, continue working on writing a book, as well as prepare for my next long hike this fall. Mud and I have hopes to complete the sections of the trail we were unable to last year due to fire closures, and maybe a little extra if there's time. For me, this means lots of writing, cooking, and dehydrating, in addition to 40 hrs each week spent working at the hospital. As for Mud, he is headed out tomorrow to hike a portion of the Pacific Northwest Trail through the Olympics and eventually end up back on the PCT in Washington. Check out his new Facebook page for pictures and more frequent updates. Happy trails to him!
As always, feel free to contact me with nutrition questions, hiking questions, or topics you'd like to read about on the blog.
Happy trails and happy eating to all!
Cashew Cheese. It's versatile, delicious and nutritious. Plus, all you have to do is dump all the ingredients into a blender and blend away. So. Easy.
This is my first attempt at writing up a recipe of my very own. Mud and I are always creating delicious concoctions in the kitchen - a little of this, a little of that. But to measure, quantify, and write it all down? That's new territory. But hopefully something I'll be doing more of! We've got my brother and now-sister-in-law (yay!) to thank for this one. I wrote this recipe down so I could multiply it by a whole bunch and still have it taste right to serve at his wedding rehearsal dinner/potluck/picnic/celebration. It turned out great - creamy, salty and satisfying. So many people asked for the recipe that I thought I'd just put it right here.
I generally use a high speed blender, but if you only have a regular ol' blender or food processor, don't fret. Soaking the cashews overnight, or even for a few hours, or for 15 minutes before hand, can help them break down easier (the longer they soak, the better). Then, just let the blender (or food processor) go at it for a while. Don't be afraid to let it blend for a good 2-3 minutes.
Place all ingredients in the blender and blend until smooth, adding more water if necessary.
Serve over bread, crackers, vegetables. Spread it on a veggie burger, fry it up in a quesadilla or use instead of cheese on a pizza. The possibilities are endless! In the future, I plan on experimenting with some dehydrating for this recipe so I can take it hiking and spread on a tortilla or add to dinners. As always, this recipe is just a loose template for your own culinary creativity to shine. Add more or less of anything as you see fit.
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