One of the questions often asked by rookies is, “What food should I bring for my days on the block?” Keep in mind that you’ll need as much energy as possible to stand up to the elements and the work. Let’s talk about the essentials that you should bring for a day on the block.
Once your season begins, it’s only a couple of shifts before you start craving two things: sleep and food. All other aspects of your life slowly diminish in importance. No matter how much you eat, you want more. No matter how much you sleep, you want more. It’s a seemingly endless cycle: Eat, Sleep, Plant, Repeat.
When it comes to sleep, there isn’t a lot of advice to give. Get lots of sleep. Make sure it’s quality sleep by not having caffeine or alcohol in your system. Make sure you’re warm and dry, so you don’t keep waking up in the night. This is obviously more easily said than done when you’re living in a tent in early May, but you should be fine with a really good sleeping bag – it’s your most important investment, period! And of course, as mentioned, sleeping in dry clothing is critical.
If you’re still cold, try wearing a couple layers of clothing to bed but make sure they’re loose-fitting. A bit of air between your clothing is a good insulator, and as odd as it sounds, looser clothing is usually warmer than tight clothing. Your first few nights in the bush might be pretty uncomfortable, especially if you’re still getting some snow at night, but within a week or so you’ll be used to the cold temperatures. Someday, you may even come to enjoy cold-weather camping.
Let’s focus on food then. Unlike with sleep, you might get a lot of different and contradictory advice, just because there are so many types of food that you might eat! All the different food groups can have different effects on your body. Most food is generally beneficial to us, with some exceptions, but the benefits that you get from any particular type of food can change significantly depending on when you eat them. Let’s start by talking about the three main sources of energy for the body: carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.
Carbohydrates, in a chemical sense, are neutral compounds made up entirely of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. There are simple carbohydrates such as sugars, and complex carbohydrates such as starches and fiber. Ultimately, all of these carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, which the body uses as energy. The difference is that some carbohydrates are broken down more quickly than others.
A wide variety of our foods contain carbohydrates, including fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, legumes, dairy products, and even things like candy and sweets. So why is sugar considered to be bad, yet carbohydrates are considered to be good? Well, that’s a tough question. Ask a dozen health experts, and you’ll probably get a dozen answers. The short version that most people do agree upon is that while sugar itself is not bad for you, and in fact is important for us in the right amounts, the problem is that most of us eat far too much. Over-consumption of sugars, especially simple sugars like refined white sugar, is contributing to obesity and some other problems. Like so many other things, moderation is the key.
Moderate amounts of simple sugars are probably ok. Other types of sugars, such as the fructose found in fruits, or the sugars found in milk products, are probably even healthier for most people because the number of calories isn’t so staggering. For a tree planter though, obesity and consuming too many calories aren’t usually the issues that they would be in the general population. Does that mean that tree planters should eat a lot of simple sugars? No. Getting your sugars from fruits and other foods is ultimately healthier because of the other nutrients that are present in those foods.
Understanding how your body digests foods is important. Simple sugars are digested faster than complex carbohydrates. Want to ensure that your body has a steady supply of sugar all day? Have a solid breakfast with lots of complex carbs. These will digest slowly over the next several hours, giving you the energy you need for at least the first half of your day. Eat a cookie or a sweet “block treat” while you’re planting and yes, you’ll get some beneficial sugars. But they’ll be processed hard and fast. You’ll have lots of energy for a short time, but then you’ll experience a bit of a “crash” as soon as that quick supply of sugar disappears. Eat something like a piece of fruit and the nutrients are released slowly, giving you energy for a few hours. Fruits, vegetables, potatoes, pasta, and similar foods will give you more long-lasting energy than sweets.
Your next main food group is the proteins, also known as “the building block” of the body. Proteins are the main components of many structures of the body: cell membranes, hair, skin, muscles, and most other organs and tissues. Proteins regulate your metabolism, help your immune system, control biochemical reactions, and perform many other functions. In short, you need lots of protein at the best of times, and when you’re planting and pushing your body really hard, you need even more than normal. If you eat meat products, you can find protein in meats, seafood, dairy products, and eggs. If you’re a vegetarian, you’ll have to work a little harder for your protein, but some good starting choices are soy, rice and beans, hummus/chickpeas, legumes & peanut butter, and the wonder food, quinoa.
Proteins can also be used as a source of energy, but it is much better for your body when you’re using carbs for energy. Burning protein for fuel is less efficient than burning carbs, and it also means that you don’t have as much protein available for rebuilding the physical and chemical structures of your body. An all-meat diet? Well, it would provide your protein and indirectly provide your energy, but a balanced diet would be better. One good thing about protein is that, like complex carbohydrates, it is absorbed gradually by the body after a meal. Your sausages and bacon at breakfast are going to be digested more slowly than your pancakes and waffles. That’s a useful tip if you always feel like you’re starving by mid-morning. Try adding more proteins.
The final source of energy for your body is fat. There are many different types of dietary fats. Like sugar, fat has a bad reputation. And like sugar, having some fat in your diet is important. Just don’t overdo it. Despite the fact that many people are concerned about their weight, for an athlete (or tree planter) this fat will be critical to your athletic performance. The body can store far more fat than carbohydrates, in fact, probably about fifty times the energy value. During strenuous exercise such as planting, if you aren’t eating constantly, you can use up your body’s store of carbs in a couple hours. That’s why your fat reserves will keep you going a lot longer.
Giving recommendations about food for a tree planter is much, much different than for someone in the general population! Planters burn so many calories that just about everything that can be eaten will be helpful! Many planters burn in excess of five or six thousand calories per day, so gaining too much weight is not usually a problem. Some planters joke about starting the “seafood diet” when the season begins – if they “see” food, they eat it. Knowing that, what are the best recommendations for a healthy diet?
For starters, don’t worry too much about things like a bit of sugar. As long as you don’t overdo it, you’ll be fine. Try to balance what you eat. Start with lots of different types of carbs, from fruit, vegetables, pastas, and so on. Include lots of proteins. And don’t be scared to include dietary fats.
More importantly than anything else, try to eat constantly! Lots of small snacks will be better than gorging yourself a couple times a day. Instead of having a big lunch at mid-day, try to eat smaller amounts five or six times throughout the day.
If your stomach always has something to digest, you’ll have a constant source of energy. By avoiding huge meals on the block, you’ll avoid problems like indigestion when you’re bending over several times per minute. This isn’t to say that a large meal is a bad thing. A large breakfast helps get you through the day. A large dinner may make it hard to sleep for a few hours, but it gives you the nutrients and energy to help your body try to rebuild overnight while you’re sleeping.
You may hear advice about needing to keep your load light in your day-bag that you take to the block. It’s true that you don’t want too much weight, especially if you’re carrying it in a distant piece. However, you should never worry about trying to conserve weight by taking less food or water to the block. More is better. In the end, you’ll probably find it difficult to maintain your weight, and difficult not to be hungry all the time. Don’t worry. It’s only natural. With lots of carbs and proteins at breakfast and in small amounts throughout the day, you’ll be just fine.
Note: if you have a history of diabetes, talk to a doctor before considering a job as a tree planter. Some diabetics have been able to manage their sugar levels in the bush, but it is far more difficult than in the city, and medical facilities are often difficult to get to quickly in an emergency.