“Let thy leafy greens be thy medicine and thy medicine be thy leafy greens”
Leafy green vegetables are some of the most nutrient dense foods in the world. They pack in a greater amount of nutrients per calorie than any other food. Some say they should be their own food group. I say they should be eaten at least once a day to maintain optimal health and vitality. Some of the specific nutrients that green leafies contain are fiber, protein, calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, vitamins K, C and folic acid. Additionally, they’re a powerhouse of disease-fighting molecules called phytochemicals including lutein, beta-carotene and zeaxanthin.
As thru-hikers, we should care about green leafies for multiple reasons. First off, they contain naturally occurring nitrates - not to be confused with nitrites, found in cured meat (hot dogs, bacon, etc.), and shown to cause cancer. Nitrates in vegetables are a precursor to nitric oxide, a powerful vasodilator, which opens up the blood vessels. When our blood vessels are dilated, we get more oxygen traveling faster to our muscles and are capable of working harder. Consumption of nitrates from beets and green vegetables has been associated with increased athletic performance and exercise tolerance, not to mention prevention of hypertension and heart disease. Vasodilation from eating greens can lead to all kinds of favorable health outcomes, on and off the trail.
Secondly, as we are walking miles upon miles, day after day, we put a lot of stress on our bones. Nutrients such as calcium and vitamin K are essential for rebuilding and strengthening bone mass. The calcium in greens is actually absorbed twice as well as calcium found in milk. Furthermore, one cup of cooked kale contains 1300% of the Daily Value of vitamin K. The more greens we can eat, the better off we will be as we put our bodies through the equivalent of a marathon every day for 5 months straight.
So how can we do it? Since we’ll be hard pressed to find a good juice and smoothie bar making fresh green smoothies along the PCT, we need to think creatively and expand our definition of leafy green vegetables beyond spinach and kale. Some ideas…
Seaweed is green AND leafy and comes conveniently dehydrated and pre-packaged at Trader Joe’s and other health-food stores. My friend Sarah was the first to introduce me to the genius of eating seaweed on the trail. Her favorite is to crumble it up inside of a tortilla full of hummus.
Also known as green tea powder, matcha actually has three times the antioxidant power of green tea. This means it will work wonders to promote healing and combat the oxidative stress that occurs in our bodies after hours and hours of walking at altitude. This is a great warm morning beverage in place of coffee. Just mix a little bit of the powder in with hot water, add some cinnamon or sugar (or both!) and drink up. It also has the added benefit of the calm but alert caffeine buzz that green tea is known for.
In a world where green surrounds us, why not explore the nutritional value of our natural environment? Edible plants such as Lambs Quarters, Miner's Lettuce, Nettle, Chickweed, Dandelion and Chicory offer some convenient health benefits when found on the trail. Pick some to add to your evening meal. This strategy does take some background knowledge and education. Never eat any plants unless you are absolutely sure of their identity. Check out this book to learn more.
4. Load up in town
Ross has a great strategy when it comes to towns. His first order of business is usually to go to the nearest grocery store or market, if there is one, to buy one bunch of kale, a lime and a ripe avocado. All he needs to do for a magnificent kale salad is rip up the kale, squeeze the lime over the top and massage the avocado and lime into the leaves. Add some salt, or if there’s time, add some salsa and black beans. All of these can be easily found at most markets and assembled in the ice container of a cheap motel room.
5. Barlean’s Greens
A company best known for its flax seed oil, Barlean’s also makes a convenient powder that includes everything from wheat grass to apple extract. This is a great way to add antioxidants and micronutrients to a trail diet. It comes in a few different flavors. I’ve only tried the chocolate, but it is quite tasty.
As Ross and I embark on our thru-hike this summer, we plan to implement all of these strategies on top of eating dehydrated meals with plenty of collard greens and spinach.
Do you have any other creative ways or resources for getting greens on the trail? Leave a comment below!
1. Hever, J. The Greatness of Greens. The Plant Based Dietitian. 2010. http://plantbaseddietitian.com/the-greatness-of-greens/
2. Greger, M. NutritionFacts.org.
3. Hever, J. Holy Kale. The Plant Based Dietitian. 2013. http://plantbaseddietitian.com/holy-kale/
4. Tilford, GL. Edible and Medicinal Plants of the West. Mountain Press Publishing Company. 1st ed. June 1, 1997.
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