It has taken me a long time to come to grips with this but I am finally ready to say it: thruhiking has ruined my relationship with food.
First of all, I just want to start by saying I’m not writing this post to garner pity or receive assurance about how I look. This post is about my mental health above all and how your relationship with food on trail can bleed into your real life. Of course, on some level my aging body and changing metabolism and recent struggle with self esteem plays into this story. I probably wouldn’t care that my relationship with food has changed if my new eating habits hadn’t led to visible changes in my body – but in the end I want to fix my relationship with food, not so that my body can go back to the “way it used to be” but so I can feel in control and healthy.
When we first started the AT I didn’t really know what to expect from hiker hunger. I had heard the term, heard of the insatiable black hole I was about to become, but I had never experienced anything like it. It hit me fast and hard. I think it was only day three or four when I was suddenly so hungry I couldn’t think about anything else other than sandwiches. I hiked along in a sandwich filled haze, imagining all the different kinds of sandwiches I loved. But when we got to break all we had was a cliff bar to split and some dried fruit to munch on. From there my hunger only grew.
My hunger allowed me to do amazing things! On our first town stop I ate an entire pizza by myself. I had never done anything like that before. I am a pretty petite human, but the satisfaction of it was bliss. Town became a symbol of relief. A chance to fill the void. We would eat our own Ben and Jerrys, our own pack of Oreos, and our own bag of chips in a horizontal binge. It was like you were trying to tip the scales on your calorie deficit, hoping that when you hoped on trail it would take more miles before the hunger hit you again. But it never took long before the bottom had fallen out of my stomach and I was dreaming of hamburgers and tacos and pasta.
When we returned from the AT we had so many goals – to stay in shape, to run a ton, to keep hiking. We stayed active but normal life is not a thruhike – unless you are a professional athlete you do not have the luxury of moving for ten hours a day. I was “lucky” to spend the winter months in restaurants where, yes I was surrounded by amazing food, but I was also on my feet for six to eight hours a day. Then in the summer I worked conservation, battling invasive plants and building trails for a living. My life was still fairly active but my eating habits didn’t revert nearly as much as they should have. More than anything Kyle and I still considered food the ultimate reward, like we had on trail.
We started climbing mountains after the AT. Of course you are burning calories while you’re climbing and you have that same exhausted, beat, utterly spent feeling when you are done but you are not on a thruhike. You aren’t about to go back out the next day and do it again and then again and again. But we still acted like we could eat anything we wanted when we climbed. We would begin to daydream about the restaurant we would go to after the climb, building up the perfect chicken pot pie or milkshake into a herculean treat.
One of the reasons I was looking forward to the PCT was because of the food. I couldn’t wait to experience that extreme hunger again because satisfying it was so sweet. But if I thought I had known hunger on the AT I had been wrong. The PCT took hiker hunger to a whole new level, probably because we were hiking so many more miles a day and we would often hike up to fourteen hours at a time. On top of that we didn’t want to carry as much food. In the desert with the heavy water carries it was hard to motivate oneself to bring enough snacks to really power one through the day. When we got to the Sierras and had the added weight of a bear can we were splitting starbursts in half in order to make our snacks last all the way to the next resupply.
We would eat and still be hungry. I would wake up at night with hunger pangs piercing the inside of my stomach. And so when we got to town it was the same story as on the AT – we ate like we would never eat again.
It is a strange thing to choose to be hungry. When all the world over people are facing actual shortages of food we have put ourselves, twice, in a situation where we have all the resources to be full, but we are working out so hard and hiking so light that we are empty. Not only do we choose to be hungry but I would go so far as to say many of us enjoy it. On trail we say “hunger is the best seasoning” meaning nothing will ever taste as good as that Mountain House at the end of a 25 mile day.
After the PCT ended Kyle and I had the same goals as before – stay in shape. Just as before “staying in shape” proved a very biased thing because trail in-shape and normal life in-shape are different. We have certainly settled for what we can take between our jobs and our friends and our love of good food. But as I have settled into the first desk job of my life I have noticed something worrisome. I tend to pendulum between too much self control and no self control when it comes to food.
Over the months I have “tried” to be healthy with my eating, since I know it is impossible to work out 24/7. But slowly I have become aware of the fact that I will starve myself for hours, just so I can enjoy whatever I am going to eat later. I now think it’s because I miss the joy that food brought me on trail. The place it had in happiness.
I am not okay with this. There are so many other things to be happy about in life. So many other ways to find joy. Eating this way – making myself extremely hungry just to eat ten cookies later in the day – is unhealthy and making me unhappy on so many levels. So finally I decided I needed to do something about it. I needed to take control back over my eating habits and my relationship with food. So I chose something and I chose the Whole30. I chose it because I simple need someone else to tell me how to eat for a while so I can hit restart. So I can take all the bad habits we built on trail and say – I don’t need these anymore. I am building new habits and they make me feel better. We are on day 10 and while my body doesn’t feel any different my mental state already feels stronger.
I welcome any questions people might have about the Whole30 (although the web might have better answers, I’m not an expert) or food while thruhiking. I also hope that this confession can act both as a warning to future thruhikers to keep an eye on their relationship with food or a wake up call to thruhikers who are wondering what is wrong in their daily lives.