Why Non-Veg Food Is Not Good On A High-Altitude Trek

T ime and again trekkers have asked me this question: “Can I have non-veg food on my trek?” Or “Will Indiahikes provide me with non-veg food on the trek?”

At Indiahikes we have always consciously refused trekkers from exercising this option.

I understand that people may eat it out of choice or a compulsion to complement the intake of protein in their daily diet. But there’s a deeper science behind the way your body responds to any food that you consume at high altitude.

Let me share these findings with you and help understand the science behind it.

How High Altitude affects Digestion

To have an in-depth understanding of this topic I spoke to one of our Trek Leaders Naman who after completing his BMC (Basic Mountaineering Course), AMC (Advanced Mountaineering Course), & MOI(Method of Instruction) courses has been studying the impact of high altitude trekking on the human body.

Our discussion lasted for some time in which he explained how the digestive process takes a hit at high-altitude.

“We all have Carbon Dioxide dissolved in our bloodstream” says Naman. “As the atmospheric pressure reduces at high altitude, the gases that are dissolved in the bloodstream start coming out. As a result of this, gas starts diffusing in your bowels, making your gut expand. This causes flatulence and other irritable syndromes inside the stomach.”

It’s similar to having a balloon filled with air that deflates as soon as you leave its mouth open. Concentrated air molecules inside the balloon increase the pressure.These molecules will escape to lower pressure outside at the smallest chance.

Now think of your blood vessels as a miniature balloon that rapidly diffuses gases outside to your gut due to pressure differences at high-altitude. In scientific terms this is called as HAFE (High-Altitude Flatulence Expulsion).

This also reminds me of Rahul’s story, a first time trekker who wrote to me complaining about bad digestion and a runny stomach. On further enquiry he informed that he had a sumptuous chicken biryani a day prior to his trek. It had never occurred to him that just like his lungs his digestive system was undergoing a change in environment and needs to be taken care of.

This is not just his story. Many trekkers have a similar experience and it’s normal to have slight gastrointestinal issues and irregular bowel movements in the mountains.

To keep it short and simple at high-altitude your digestive system is already under natural stress and trying its best to cope with the changes. The same digestive system at sea level is much more capable.

Now that we have an understanding of how the digestive system behaves at high-altitude let’s speak about the nutritional needs of a trekker.

This will help us establish the connection between what our body needs on a trek and what it can easily digest.

What Nutrition Do You Need At High Altitude?

On an average a trekker burns 7 calories/kg/hr. That means a trekker who weighs 60kgs  will lose 420 cal/hr. As trekkers we need to replenish this to receive optimum nutrition.

A research paper by British Nutrition Foundation suggests that a person carrying out medium intensity exercise (such as trekking) should plan his/her diet with the following nutrient profile: 45-65% carbs (5-8 g/kg/day), 10-35% protein (0.8-1 g/kg/day) and 20-35% fat (0.5-1.5 g/kg/day).

campsite-food-indiahikes-trek
The nutritious freshly prepared food we serve to trekkers at Indiahikes

Since you need ready energy to do the trek, your meals should be loaded with complex carbs. Protein should be low as it takes longer time to break down protein and diverts a lot of energy. This is particularly not desirable when your digestive system is already under pressure at high-altitude.

Why you should refrain from eating meat on treks

Non-vegetarian sources are immensely rich in protein. Digesting them takes more time and energy. This extra stress on your digestive system may trigger HAFE and other stomach disorders such as indigestion and acidity.

But does that mean you should totally disregard taking protein on the trek?

No, says Lakshmi Selvakumaran, our Green Trails Head who has closely followed the nutritional needs of our trekkers for some time now.

She says: “Proteins help in restoring and building the muscle fibers that constantly tear down on long treks. Therefore, while trekking a ratio of 3:1 carbs:protein is recommended. Protein sources such as Soyabean chunks, chickpeas can easily provide you that. Plus there’s an added advantage of cooking them fresh on long treks as opposed to carrying preserved meat.”  

High Protein source food such as meats if at all should be included in the post trek diet plan. Coupled with adequate rest they can repair the muscle tissues and help you bounce back to your daily life in the cities.

What to eat instead?

Annapurna base camp-Indiahikes-Lakshmi Selvakumaran-typical Nepalese meal at a tea house-1
Vegetarian food served at a teahouse in Nepal

Mornings = Carbohydrate rich food

Lunch & Dinner = 3 : 1 (Carbohydrates to Protein food).

As a golden rule, have more food in your diet that is rich in Carbohydrates. Load your morning breakfast with Corn Flakes with milk, or wheat rotis with chana dal, etc.

For protein bring in some soya chunks and oats later in the day, usually in dinner – so that it gets enough time to digest and absorb.

Refer the nutritional chart below to understand which food item has what nutrients.

Item (100g)Calories Carbs (g)Fiber (g) Fat (g)Protein (g)
Chana dal350602224.5
Kidney beans3376215.42.18.7
Whole wheat macaroni348758115
Oats3896611717
Corn flakes357843.30.48
Rice130280.40.32.7
Chickpea3646117612
Soy chunks3453313116.6
Milk614.803.33.2
Boiled egg1551.101113
Ground nuts5671694926
Almonds57622124921

*Approximate figures.

Conclusion

The amount of protein that you take on a high-altitude trek must be properly regulated.

The age old saying “Better Safe than Sorry!” holds very true when it comes to eating on a high-altitude trek. Refrain from excessive protein rich foods such as meat which can cause stomach disorders. This can ruin your trek experience.

Stay on the safer side and eat easily digestible nutritious vegetarian food. Resist the urge to eat your favourite chicken biryani and tangdi Kebab till you get down from the mountains. 🙂

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Aditya Shankar

Aditya Shankar is a Content Manager at Indiahikes. Prior to this job he worked as a Business Consultant for 3 years. His love for the written word and the great outdoors eventually brought him home at Indiahikes. A conversationalist at heart and soul, you can reach him at aditya@indiahikes.com

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