Friday, September 4, 2009

The Minerals that Drive Us (For Hikers)


The days of cramming twenty granola bars in your backpack and heading for the mountain are over. I think these products are called “PowerBarz” or “ProteinBoost” or “SugarSugarSugar” these days. If you’re heading for that mountain to get in shape, leave the granola candy where it belongs (on the shelf at the supermarket until we all stop buying it) and give your body the minerals it needs to conquer the mountain—the natural way.

If you’ve had a protein- and vitamin-rich breakfast before setting off, you won’t need to take a pork roast in your backpack or candy bars masquerading as health food. A 100-gram granola bar contains between 400 and 600 calories (31g fat, 54 g carbohydrates mostly in the form of sugar), a list of vitamins (most followed by 0% values), and unimpressive amounts of the minerals your body needs during sports. [Carbohydrates, by the way, are “not essential nutrients in humans. The body can obtain all its energy from protein and fat” (“Is Dietary Carbohydrate essential for human nutrition?” Westman 75 (5): 951 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.] So why eat these products if they’re full of things your body doesn’t really need?

What I need on a hike: raw vegetables that contain lots of water and minerals. Wait! Before you start tossing a salad in my backpack, do this: First, obtain three airtight, plastic containers each large enough to hold a sandwich; and second, forget the sandwich.

The three minerals—potassium (K), calcium (Ca), and magnesium (Mg)—I feature below are essential for proper muscle function as well as electrolyte balance in the body. For a male between the ages of twenty-five and fifty, the Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) for these essential minerals is K 3500 mgs, Ca 800-1000 mgs, and Mg 350-420 mgs. Whether you’re planning a day of extreme sports or just going on a four-hour hike, you should make sure you have enough—but not too much—of these nutrients in the bag. Overdose is rare but does have serious consequences: anywhere from muscle cramps to death.

Let’s start with the water-rich vegetables containing the most potassium, calcium and magnesium. Tell all your friends you heard it here first. You should be carrying plastic containers of french beans, celery and broccoli in your backpack. Here are the reasons (all measures below in cups):

French Beans: K 1310 mg, Ca 224 mg, Mg 110 mg. That’s a third of your potassium!
Celery (I love celery): K 852 mg, Ca 126 mg, Mg 36 mg
Broccoli: K 458 mg, Ca 104 mg, Mg 32 mg


If you don’t want to eat these vegetables raw (sissy), lightly steam them (cooking destroys potassium), wait for them to cool and pitch them into that plastic container. No salt! Sodium counteracts the benefits of the potassium. You’ll get enough sodium in these foods without adding extra salt.

Other water-rich vegetables you might cut up and throw into that container: red bell peppers, cucumbers, and fennel (who doesn’t love fennel?). Avoid carrots unless you’re fit enough to handle all that sugar. Sugar . . . blech.

The fruit. If you can’t resist the temptation, here are a few you at least don’t have to cut up before you put them into the second plastic container:

Strawberries: K 220 mg, Ca 23 mg, Mg 19 mg
Tomatoes: K 292 mg, Ca 12 mg, Mg 14 mg
Grapefruit: K 310 mg, Ca 51 mg, Mg 21 mg


If these lovelies are already packaged in sturdy containers (a grapefruit travels just fine in its peel), wash them in their wrappers, let them dry and put them in your backpack in a place where they won’t get squished. Grapes also make a good snack, but they’re really nothing more than little balls of sugar. It would be better to ball some honeydew melon (According to the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, a quarter melon has an exciting 875 mgs of potassium!) Remember: If you’re mission is to get fit, burn calories, and lose weight, sugar is not your sweetheart.

That said, reward yourself with a handful of dates (K 964 mg, Ca 57 mg, Mg 63 mg) mixed with the following nuts and seeds in the third container:

Pumpkin seeds: K 229 mg, Ca 12 mg, Mg 151 mg—That’s whopping!
Brazil nuts (my favorite): K 187 mg, Ca 75, Mg 107 mg
Almonds: K 200 mg, Ca 75 mg, Mg 76 mg


Obviously you’ll be getting quite a lot of your magnesium from nuts and seeds. Go easy on these, though: they will also provide most of your calories in the form of fat and protein. While I’ve made an exception for dates, the problem with dried fruit on a hike is that it doesn’t contain water. It’s dried. Most of your food should help you replace the water you are losing through perspiration. But you can feel great about treating yourself to a handful of these nutritious goodies because all of these foods are packing pistols when it comes to potassium, calcium and magnesium.

If you have a balanced combination of these natural snacks in your backpack (with a couple of pieces of turkey and a hardboiled egg), you’ll be free of wrappers and white sugar. You’ll also have your mineral bases covered for a four-hour hike.

One last very important point: Your body needs vitamin D to absorb potassium, so don’t be afraid to walk in the sun for fifteen minutes in the late morning hours. Wait to put on sunscreen until afterward: sunscreen blocks UVB rays, which trigger the chemical process of vitamin D production in the skin.

“But hold on!” you say. “How can you end this mineral-rich article without mentioning seaweed, Chris?”

Well, I don’t like seaweed, but here’s the astounding news: Seaweed is bursting with all three of the minerals in this article (K 1527 mg, Ca 134 mg, Mg 218 mg). If you like it (which I don’t), you should take it along. Your backpack’s going to stink, but OK. Hey, how does seaweed-wrapped brazil nuts sound? Not good.

I know. I must be off,
Christopher