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Should Climbers Really Avoid Processed And Junk Foods? Depends.

Some of the "healthier" alternatives actually aren't any better for fueling your climbing than a grab bag of foods you have been avoiding.

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You think you know about nutrition? Many climbers say they avoid processed foods and eat healthier, better fueling their bodies for optimal climbing. But what are processed foods and are they really better for your climbing than more natural fuels? Test your knowledge with these three scenarios. See how well you do!

Scenario 1: For a multi-pitch, all-day climb with a long approach, Crusher Number One brings a black bean quinoa salad and pre-cooked lentils. What do you think: great climbing food, or a bad idea?  

He ends up feeling sluggish and slow. He doesn’t have the energy to push through the crux, and he has some gas pain and feels overly full. It’s uncomfortable. Why?

Although the food he brought is healthful, it’s not great for active exercise. Too much fiber means slower digestion. Gastrointestinal upset and under-fueled muscles happen when digestion is so slow that the food doesn’t get into working muscles. He also didn’t bring enough calories for the demands of the day because it was heavy to carry. He actually would have been better off with processed foods that are actually lighterweight, are easier to pack and fuel the body better. “Processed” foods include dried fruit, gummies, nut-butter packets, a white tortilla with honey and banana slices, packaged bars, and gel packs. These foods have simple carbohydrates that are easy to digest and have just enough protein to help you feel full.

Scenario 2: Crusher Number Two has a multi-round comp that lasts two days with long hours of isolation. She brought string cheese, trail mix, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, an apple, and some gummy bears. She plans on eating a salad, salmon, baked potato, and a smoothie for dinner after the comp is done. What do you think: great climbing food, or bad idea?

She ends up doing well for multiple rounds because her food is easy on the stomach and quick to digest. The more processed gummy bears that she ate in iso gave her quick energy for the next climbing round. The string cheese, sandwich, apple, and trail mix she had for lunch when she had a couple of hours to digest before the next round. She felt strong, fueled, and confident with no stomach issues. The less-processed, whole-foods dinner was a good recovery meal, since it offered a range of nutrients and could be digested overnight before climbing again the next morning.

Scenario 3: Crusher Number Three is recovering from relative energy deficiency in sport and an eating disorder. She has been told by her doctor and dietitian that she needs to gain weight and regain her period. She feels full easily with just a few bites of food, and often feels fatigued when she climbs grades that used to be easy for her. She believes that less-processed food is healthier, so eats whole grains, vegetables, and beans. What do you think: great climbing food, or bad idea?

For climbers who struggle to eat enough food, only eating minimally-processed foods is counterproductive. More processed foods, such as protein shakes, refined pasta, white bread, oils, and shelf-stable bars are useful—they are easier on the stomach and usually offer more calories than their less-processed counterparts. Crusher Number Three would benefit from processed, calorie-dense foods in order to meet her current nutrition needs. When she is recovered and stable, she could introduce more whole foods as a long-term diet pattern.

How did you do on this challenge? Processed foods are not bad. There are different levels of processing, and almost all food is processed in some way. Salad greens are chopped and washed—this is processing. Some foods must be processed in order to be safe, such as cooking raw meat or pasteurizing milk. Ultra-processed foods such as candy and chips are fine in moderation and appropriate in certain scenarios (like gummies between burns or cake at a birthday party), yet if they are a big part of your diet, you may be missing out on other important nutrients and may be more prone to over-eating these items.

Whether you eat processed foods depends on your nutritional needs and the scenario. There are no good or bad foods, just different ways to utilize them. Don’t be afraid of more processed foods if the situation calls for it, and also be mindful of how much ultra-processed foods you’re eating. For example, grabbing fast food at the end of a long climbing session where Taco Bell is your only option is far better than skipping a meal and waiting several hours until you can eat a home-cooked meal. The fact that you’re getting calories is more important than where those calories come from. Prioritize overall energy intake first, rather than overthinking how “healthy” or processed the food is. Fueling regularly and supporting recovery is vital to keep on climbing.

More processed foods may be useful when: Less processed foods may be useful when:
It’s hard to meet your energy or macronutrient needs with whole foods (i.e., you need protein powder to meet your protein needs) You want a healthful overall diet with the majority of foods being whole foods
You need easily-digestible food for pre-workout and intra-workout fueling You are on a limited calorie budget and want to feel full with fibrous foods
You need light, packable food for backcountry trips You want a wider range of foods, tastes, and textures in your diet