How This Vegan Outdoor Trek Leader Is Breaking Dietary Stereotypes

In the world of the outdoors, there is a stereotype – that you cannot perform well as a vegan outdoor leader. This is because most people feel that purely plant-based diets, cannot sustain the rigor that an outdoor profession puts a person through. 

Indiahikes Trek Leader Nitesh Kumar shatters this claim. Not only is he a vegan outdoor leader, but his duties also involve trekking the wide expanse of the Himalayas. Leading trekkers up and down these beautiful, yet sometimes treacherous mountains. 

Meeting Nitesh was an eye-opener for me. He is Indiahikes’ first vegan Trek Leader’. Over the past couple of years, I’ve heard people debate whether plant-based or vegan diets contain enough protein to sustain high-performance athletes. These athletes require a higher intake of protein not only to build and grow their muscle mass but to recover from their exercise.

Trekking is a high-performance and high-intensity exercise. Nitesh is trekking in the Himalayas at least 24 days in a month. He does close to 40 treks each year. He’s led batches to the newly opened Gidara Bugyal Trek, Mukta Top, Pin Bhaba Pass, and Dayara Bugyal, just to name a few.

His body is a trekking machine. Yet is entirely fuelled completely by vegan foods. At higher altitudes, and sub-zero temperatures, this is a unique challenge for the body.

Nitesh tells me about one of his inspirations – Kuntal Joisher. Joisher was the first vegan to successfully summit Mt Everest. His equipment and his food were all 100% animal-free.

Challenges of being a vegan Outdoor Trek Leader in the Himalayas

In cities, there are vegan alternatives to most dairy foods – vegan milk, vegan butter, vegan ice-cream, the list goes on. Adding to this, you can find dry fruits, leafy vegetables, and pulses quite easily.

This is not so in the remote mountain villages. Sometimes, groceries must travel for days before they reach a store.  This means that Nitesh cannot operate on a whim, or buy things as and when he realized he can.

“I usually plan my meals for about a month and a half in advance”, says Nitesh. This means buying and preparing his nutrition for a month and a half and carrying it with him everywhere he goes. This also makes him practice sustainability. He doesn’t buy any packaged products and gets all of his nutrients directly from the sources.

Further, how does one stay vegan when the sweet milk chai of the mountains, is an affair on its own!

Not having any stores around is a blessing in disguise for Nitesh. He says that this allows him to be a vegan in a true, and different sense. He says he is not distracted by the luxury of alternatives that you can find in cities.

Instead, Nitesh buys dry fruits and seeds – chia, sesame, poppy, flax, pumpkin, and sunflower seeds, and roasts them together, and then powders them. This he says is just one of his staples. He does this while he is at home, or in the mountains.

A Vegan outdoor leader's food is rich in natural proteins and nutrition
Step 1 – Roast the mixture of chia seeds, sesame, poppy, flaxseed, sunflower seeds. Picture by Nitesh Kumar

 

Vegan outdoor leaders staples include lots of energy and nutrient rich nuts
Step 2: Powder the seeds into a fine mixture in a mixer grinder.

Getting enough nutrition to lead treks 24 days in a month

While trekking, a healthy intake of calcium and proteins is a must. You exert your body more than usual and burn far more calories. An approximate intake of 1.2 g to 2 g of protein is recommended.

Nitesh tells me that many of his fellow Trek Leaders and trekkers have a common misconception about vegans. I was guilty of this too, that is until Nitesh clarified it for me.

He says that most people are convinced that without dairy and other animal proteins it is impossible to fare well in any physically demanding outdoor profession. Further, they think that being a vegan also delays the body’s ability to recover from injury and stress.

A high altitude and high-intensity profession like a Trek Leader is the epitome of outdoor professions.

Remember a Trek Leader does not do the trek only once, they are running up and down throughout the trek, ensuring that all their team members are safe.

Nitesh shakes his head with a smile as he explains, “As a vegan, I am not depriving myself of any nutrition. This is one misconception that everyone has. All the nutrition that a vegetarian or non-vegetarian has, I am getting them. It is just the way in which I get them.”

Nitesh carries a mixture of seeds, sprouts, grains, self-made peanut butter, almonds cashew, apricots, etc. He eats a lot of varieties of vegetables, specifically green leafy ones. He also doesn’t miss a chance to eat fruits, whatever is available in a particular region, and season.

Meal prep: Nitesh’s diet consists of a lot of leafy and green vegetables. Picture by Nitesh Kumar

While there are vegan protein supplements Nitesh does not take any. He only takes a Vitamin B12 supplement because every human body is deficient in vitamin B12. This is not restricted only to vegans.

Further, he integrates a lot of dal and pulses into his diet. “All these plant-based ingredients have enough nutrients to sustain my body during my treks. My body feels very light, stronger, fueled with energy, and improved reflexes as well. In fact, the quality of nutrition obtained here is much higher than any normal day routine.” says Nitesh.

Four Himalayan treks a month also means that his body, especially his muscle tissues are prone to a lot of wear and tear, and injury. It is proven that vegan diets boosts muscle recovery more than any other diet.

Vegan diets play a major role in maintaining cardiovascular health. This is critical for endurance athletes. 

A paper published  by the National Centre for Biotechnology- ‘Vegan diets, practical advice for athletes and exercisers’, says    “ vegan diet could offer potential performance benefits due to the antioxidant (polyphenols), micronutrient (vitamin C, E) and carbohydrate-rich foods typical of plant-based diets assisting training and enhancing recovery.”

Pulses and greens
Nitesh’s diet includes a lot of pulses and dals. Picture by Nitesh Kumar

How the mountain staff help and support his choice to be a vegan outdoor leader

“At first the mountain staff and cooks would think that this is something peculiar. But after I would sit with them, and take the time to explain why I am a vegan, I could feel a sense of respect from them. They would appreciate my choice. Earlier I would have to tell them that I don’t eat ghee, milk etc, but now they ensure to set aside some vegetables or dal for me before adding milk or ghee.”

Nitesh explains to the mountain staff that his choice to turn vegan was primarily because of his love for nature, and his love for animals. He tells them that he could not bear to eat any dairy products knowing the manner in which the dairy industry works. 

“Many people say that in the mountains there is no dairy industry and that we get milk straight from the cow. They ask me why I still don’t drink milk.” 

To this he says, “Firstly, in the true sense of being vegan,I cannot take advantage of any animals, and dairy products. Secondly, I feel like I am taking away milk from a baby calf, and disturbing the beautiful relationship between a cow and a calf.”

Researchers at the University of Oxford found that cutting meat and dairy products from your diet could reduce an individual’s carbon footprint from food by up to 73 percent.

Nitesh says that the mountain staff supporting him, and believing in his choice to be vegan has helped him a lot. Without this, being a vegan in the mountains would be a huge challenge.

Nitesh at Kallapatthar (18,200 ft) on the Everest Base Camp Trek.

Predictions for the trekking world

Nitesh believes that in a few years, there will be a lot more vegan athletes and trekkers in the world. He says, “We cannot ignore the huge negative impact that the meat and dairy industry has on the environment. Secondly, more and more people are discovering that being vegan is a much healthier and active lifestyle.”

While being a vegan outdoor athlete is gaining a lot of popularity for all the right reasons in the west, India is just a little behind. But Nitesh thinks thanks to social media, and strong people committed to the environment, the awareness of being vegan is increasing.

“I want to be an inspiration to outdoor people that it is possible to be vegan, and excel at a physically demanding job. Being a Trek Leader I have the opportunity to interact with many trekkers. I get to share my journey with them, and hopefully inspire a few to become more sustainable,” says Nitesh. 

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8 thoughts on “How This Vegan Outdoor Trek Leader Is Breaking Dietary Stereotypes

  1. Quite a feat – pushing the limit to what’s humanly possible. I can understand that Nitesh needs B12 from a supplement because the requirement we need is much higher than what can be incorporated in a vegan only diet.
    This lifestyle is not viable for us who live with families and have semi-active or active lifestyles, unless we are a full time endurance sportsperson especially the part about planning your meal more than a month in advance – that is meticulous. But thanks for the article.

    1. I’m a vegan trekker. On a recent trek to Chattisgarh with Indiahikes, I received so much support and understanding from my trek lead, Vijeet and the support staff, it was amazing. There was black coffee for me, herbal tea without milk, and food kept aside before the addition of milk or ghee. It was heartwarming to see my dietary preference treated with respect and compassion. Hats off to the Indiahikes staff!

  2. Way to go Nitesh. You are showing the way. Would recommend the documentary ‘What the Health” to all. Its there on Youtube. Dispells a lot of myths. I am a Vegetarian myself and plan to go ‘semi-vegan’ by reducing dairy intake (just to not create a fuss for those who feed me) from now on. By the way can you recommend a good B12 supplement since you have been taking it already for some time.

  3. Nitesh Kumar, you are just amazing. High Energy, Good and thoughtful food intake is the key. No nature harm, no animal slaughtering, yet rich in muscles to show the path to the great Himalayas is an inspiration. I will always remember the days of the Goechela trek where your support meant a lot. Thank you!

  4. Hi Nitesh, It was an interesting reading. Also very encouraging. I am vegetarian and always believed that it’s not a limitation. Your article has given the testimonial beyond what I thought.
    Stay blessed and healthy and happy.
    Kaushal

  5. Way to go buddy! Great to see your curiosity turn into action and now awareness and inspiration for others – Plant Power 24 hour ♥️

  6. You are an amazing person with such positive thoughts and the zeal for protecting nature is commendable.. so much to learn from u..
    Cherish my trek with you .. a wonderful trek leader

  7. Had opportunity to have Nitesh as our trek leader when we did dayara bugyal trek last October.
    He is a very inspiring person. He is not just a vegan outdoor trek leader, he is also a superb green trail warrior. He will avoid all packaged food to prevent plastic waste generation. He says the pleasure what i get after eating a packed food supposed choclate will be very limited but the plastic waste generated will stay here maybe forever.
    If we have even a few more like him earth will be much prettier and happier place for everyone.
    Thank you Nitesh
    Keep Inspiring