Eating for Everest

Arriving back in Kathmandu two things happened: my taste buds began working more efficiently at the lower altitude [1], and my hunger for healthy, familiar food grew. I find myself in the comfort of the Himalayan Java cafe surrounded by ex-Pats writing blogs and eating toasted sandwiches and young monks Skyping on MacBook Airs while sipping honey lattes. Having returned from Everest Base Camp to Kathmandu for a few days to transfer the handling of my expedition from a third party to the Seven Summits Trekking company, I am no longer under the pressure of immediate and continual “calorie loading” in preparation for inevitable weight loss during my Everest ascent; no longer of delicate stomach and intestine after discarding my Malaria medications; and no longer restricted to the choices of regional Nepalese teahouse menus, and yet I am still playing it safe. Why therefore, does my culinary adventurism narrow, and suspicion grow towards the food venues that I choose to dine? I’m telling myself it is because there really is much at stake: I cannot risk another bout of food poisoning and dehydration for instance, but the truth is, surroundings like this feel so familiar, that I forget that I’m eating for Everest. DCIM100GOPROGOPR2667. As a native Melbournian, I also have many ingrained biases about where I dine. I can confess a preference for continental and European cuisine, an affinity with strong design lines, solid architecture, elegant lighting, clean tables (white table cloths, or at least napkins) and; and an expectation for exceptionally good table service, free WiFi and strong aromatic coffee. In my normal habit and routine, my diet is also very regulated. I eat 4 main meals and 4 snacks across 8 hours of the day and try to have greens with every main meal for instance. As a rule, I do not consume MSG, gluten, cold solid forms of lactose and many chemical food additives and preservatives that my body reacts badly to. I am also conscious of combinations of food, oils, herbs and spices, and the times of day that I eat them for regulating my hormones, energy levels and best sustaining mental or physical performance during the times I need it. I wake up to a strong coffee and I do not deny myself the richest of cocoa chocolate, berry or citrus sweets with a second coffee (soy latte) in the mid afternoon. It is not any kind of “text book diet” but it is a “healthy diet for me”.

Nonetheless it was critical that I altered my diet over many months for the preconditioning phase of the Mt. Everest Summit Expedition. Standing at 184cm tall (6’1″) with a constant weight range between 62-66kg since the age of 14, my BMI index has been consistently “underweight” or borderline “healthy” depending the chart. Tall women for instance, were not included on previous charts, so until recently I could only be measured on the men’s table, therefore falling in the “very underweight” range. While I am a healthy and strong, the overall lack of adequate thermal protection and fat reserves have been a challenge for me working long hours underwater as a commercial diver and so too, could be significantly life-threatening on Mt. Everest.

My “Eating for Everest” Plan was to gain an additional 10Kg of fat in addition to the natural muscle gain from fitness and strength training. Slowly and naturally I accumulated additional fat deposits around my midline, thighs and bottom by consuming starchy carbohydrates in the evening, casein protein powders in morning, and a glutton of pastries around mid day before sitting at a computer for a few hours. Just when all seemed to be on track, I fractured my sternum and ribs during routine bench press training, prematurely suspending all physical activity and prioritising rest and recuperation. At six weeks before departing for Kathmandu, this was two weeks prior to the planned “final rest and get fat” phase of my schedule. Two other tips helped me work on my weight gain while my body reduced the inflammation and healed:

  1. Eating like a Sumo Wrestler. My dragon boat coach explained that they deliberately consume a bowl of rice, pasta or cereal late at night and then going to sleep. In this pattern, the body cannot digest the complex carbohydrates and so they get store quickly as fat. Despite the sleep disturbances, it seemed to be working. The scales said 68 Kg for the first time. My Dad even noticed puffiness in my cheeks and a new roundness in my face. As a celiac sufferer however, you can imagine how I was suffering.
  2. I am forever grateful for the second bit of advice from a Fireman and boxer trainer: add sweet chilli sauce to pasta as a lubricant. I started with the principal sweet chilli, and added olive oil and lemon juice, and occasionally cocoanut oil (with a protein) for variety every other day. I began to feel great again. My energy levels increased too but the scales starting to drop: rapidly. My body was too adept at maintaining an equilibrium weight.

This raised another challenge: the issue of cortisol and stress management across my whole body system. Any additional stressors, and I knew that I would loose more weight. My diet had to stop. Put in perspective, in the lead up to departure and the new and usual pre-performance stressors that I faced, and the importance of healing for maximum efficient respiratory function at altitude, I decided to stop looking at the scales and eat for strength.

Altitude exposure decreases energy intake and thus induces an energy deficit resulting in the loss of body mass. The energy deficit is worsened when energy expenditure is increased by exercise because the increase is not matched by an increased energy intake. The indicated fuel for the optimal use of the rarefied oxygen at altitude is carbohydrate. For optimal taste and maximizing energy intake, fat is the best. Protein should rather be limited because of its high thermic effect. Intestinal malabsorption probably does not play a role in the energy deficit. Even though the sensation of exertion during climbing at high altitude is intense, the actual energy expenditure is not high [5].

“Eating for Everest” once in Nepal is a very different experience, but it is all about eating for strength. Three meals (Nepali, Sherpa, Tibetan, Continental, Italian and Indian cuisine ) are provided from the teahouses and camps according to a standardised Himalayan Glacier menu. After enjoying the fragrant Dal Bhat (Sherpa stew, lentils and rice), MoMo and local curries, I had to opt for a milder, less acidic and colder diet. My staple bland-meal diet now consists mainly of white starchy carbohydrates. Breakfast includes porridge/muesli with banana/apple and hot milk, plain toast/croissant/chapatti or pancake, honey and black coffee. I drink fresh Mint Tea mid-morning and mid-afternoon with sugar. Lunch may include garlic soup, an omelet, plain rice or fried rice with vegetables or fried potato with vegetables and egg, with mint or ginger tea. Before sunset, I eat dark chocolate or dry cookies. In the evening, I enjoy the same lunch menu with Tuna or roast chicken if I can find it, plus desert or baked fruit. Green vegetables are scarce. Uncooked foods are not eaten. After a few days, my stomach settles into this gluten-rich, seemingly vitamin-poor diet, and I feel surprisingly strong and sleep well. Back in Kathmandu, with all the culinary choice around me, the only change I make to my intake is to add more cooked vegetables and plain Naan, drink more water instead of tea, and splash out with two heart-warming strong soy lattes every day to remind me of home.

Wish you were here to join me.

Some additional references on eating for Everest:

[1] Singh, S. B., Sharma, A., Yadav, D. K., Verma, S. S., Srivastava, D. N., Sharma, K. N., & Selvamurthy, W. (1997). High altitude effects on human taste intensity and hedonics. Aviation, space, and environmental medicine68(12), 1123-1128. [2] Westerterp-Plantenga, M. S., Westerterp, K. R., Rubbens, M., Verwegen, C. R., Richelet, J. P., & Gardette, B. (1999). Appetite at “high altitude”[Operation Everest III (Comex-’97)]: a simulated ascent of Mount Everest. Journal of Applied Physiology87(1), 391-399. [3] Bailey, D. M., & Davies, B. (2001). Acute mountain sickness; prophylactic benefits of antioxidant vitamin supplementation at high altitude. High Altitude Medicine & Biology2(1), 21-29. [4] Virués-Ortega, J., Buela-Casal, G., Garrido, E., & Alcázar, B. (2004). Neuropsychological functioning associated with high-altitude exposure. Neuropsychology review14(4), 197-224. [5] Westerterp, K. R., & Kayser, B. (2006). Body mass regulation at altitude. European journal of gastroenterology & hepatology18(1), 1-3.

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