Skip the apres ski? Boycott burgers? Nutrition experts weigh in on Summit County’s mountain town lifestyle and how to reach peak health.
Editor’s Note: This is the first story in a four-part series that will publish every Thursday.
The natural allure of the Rocky Mountains and its plentiful outdoor recreation opportunities lured Karn Stiegelmeier to Summit County.
“I was just out of college,” Stiegelmeier recalled of her move in 1975. “What did I do? I had to be a ski bum.”
Short on cash, Stiegelmeier stopped by the only grocery store on Main Street in Frisco and bought a large bag of apples and a giant pack of peanuts. For several weeks, she survived on little else — working as a cross-country ski instructor and hitting the slopes in her free time all the while.
A marathoner, whitewater kayaker and skier, Stiegelmeier has lived in Summit County for almost three decades. Here, she said, it can seem like people are addicted to their favorite outdoor activities — from winter sports to rock climbing, mountain biking, rafting and more.
“The classic story is: ‘I came here to ski, and I stayed because it’s just so much fun,’” Stiegelmeier said.
Patios often become places where locals and visitors congregate to enjoy a drink after a long day out on the mountain, and resort towns’ plentiful bars offer fast-casual dining and fat-laden treats to fulfill folks’ hunger after calorie-burning workouts. These moments are a reprieve from Summit County’s health- and environment-centric lifestyle that fosters high scores when it comes to national data regarding health, but apres ski culture and hearty foods are ingrained in the High Country culture, Stiegelmeier said.
Locals’ love for the outdoors is part of what has made Summit County one of the most active counties in the country. Out of Colorado’s 64 counties, Summit ranks fourth for its activity rate, according to Colorado Department of Health and Environment reports.
Nationally, the estimated median rate of physical inactivity is about 26%, but in the region including Summit, Eagle, Garfield and Grand counties the inactivity rate is closer to 10%, a 2013 study by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment found.
Meanwhile, obesity rates in Summit County have historically been lower than a vast majority of the country. The state health department’s study also found that the region including Summit, Eagle, Garfield and Grand counties had the lowest prevalence of obesity in Colorado — which is already the second-leanest state in the United States.
But whether dining on a ski bum’s budget or enjoying the amenities of a resort community — where burgers and beers are among the most common menu items — is being physically active enough to outweigh the need for a healthy diet?
Skipping the Apres Ski
As an avid kayaker in her younger years, Stiegelmeier remembers stocking coolers full of beer before her many rafting trips. When she finished her first marathon, her friends were waiting — beer in hand — at the finish line.
“It’s part of the culture — the sense of: ‘We’re going skiing, and we’re going to have a drink,’” Stiegelmeier said. “It seems pretty universal. Summit County is definitely more of a party place than a lot of places, and I think that’s part of being a tourist town.”
For nearly every subculture of physical activity available in Summit County, there is a subculture of drinking to go along with it. Slopeside bars make it easy to end a day on the mountain with a few cocktails, and after rock climbing or summiting a 14er, many seek out a cold beer as a way to soothe sore muscles.
But while experts acknowledge that many people indulge in alcoholic drinks after a strenuous day of physical activity, they say booze has more drawbacks than benefits when it comes to nutrition.
Heath Gasier is an assistant professor of anesthesiology at the Duke University School of Medicine whose research has focused on performance nutrition at high elevations. While many active adults may choose to end the day with an alcoholic drink, Gasier said “moderation is key.”
Alcohol can inhibit an antidiuretic hormone that promotes water loss and causes dehydration. Gasier added that many people who have spent the day exercising may already be at a loss for water, so alcohol can exacerbate that dehydration.
Since alcohol impairs judgment, Gasier said people commonly replace meals with several drinks. That especially can leave a person feeling sluggish or burnt out the next day, he said, since there is nothing to restore their energy levels or replenish nutrients and vitamins.
“A lot of people go on ski trips, and they’re not acclimatizing to the environment. They’re just going to ski and go to the pub every night and just deal with it,” Gasier said. “Is it the best approach? No.”
Erika Bettermann, a Denver-based dietician who focuses on sports nutrition, noted that in addition to dehydration, alcohol can disrupt sleep, impact digestion and impair the body’s ability to absorb nutrients and vitamins.
In particular, alcohol can inhibit the body’s ability to take up B Vitamins, which are needed for energy metabolism and glycogen synthesis, Bettermann said. Glycogen is a form of glucose and a main source of energy stored in the muscles.
After too many drinks “you’re not going to be able to store all the energy you need for the next day,” Bettermann said. So, before a long day on the slopes or hiking a 14,000-foot-tall mountain, it is probably better to take it easy.
Still, for those who are just looking to enjoy the mountains and have fun — rather than push their limits or crush a personal record — alcohol may not have many nutritional benefits, but a drink or two probably won’t put too much of a damper on their recreation, Gasier added.
Stiegelmeier noted that often drinking “is just part of having fun and celebrating and socializing with friends.”
“People need to know that it’s okay to do that,” he said. “Especially when you’re consuming a lot of energy, space it out over the course of the vacation. That’s the best advice I could give somebody.”
Growing up, Stiegelmeier was never a fan of the taste of meat and would sneak her plate under the table to feed the family dog.
Nowadays, Stiegelmeier is well accustomed to a vegetarian diet. It hasn’t just provided her with the vitamins, nutrients and energy she needed for an active lifestyle full of kayaking, hiking and skiing. It is also better for the planet, something that many recreationists in Summit care deeply about.
“The basic vegetarian diet is so much healthier for the planet,” she said. “Carbon released from meat products is huge.”
Living in the Rocky Mountains, Stiegelmeier said she — and many other Summit County residents — has developed a strong appreciation for the natural world.
“For most people, if you just go out for a hike or a cross-country ski, you just do that,” she said. “But if you do it for very long, you start to get a sense of how much you like the environment and how much you care about it.”
Despite some misconceptions, diets structured primarily around plants and vegetables have a multitude of health benefits too, especially for people who are physically active, according to Jerry Casados, a Denver-based dietician who specializes in helping people transition to a plant-based lifestyle.
Casados said most people seek out his expertise for health reasons — including help managing weight loss, autoimmune disorders or high cholesterol. He said he started eating a plant-based diet himself more than a decade ago after his doctor showed him images of his heart and clogged arteries.
“I look at it as a holistic approach,” Casados said. “Because it really heals the whole body.”
Plant-based diets can reverse the effects of Type 2 Diabetes and heart disease, lower blood pressure and cholesterol and improve bowel movements and acid reflux. On top of that, there are all the environmental benefits as well.
Animal agriculture is a resource-intensive industry, Casados said, with livestock such as cows releasing large amounts of methane — a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.
According to the University of Colorado Environmental Center, raising livestock for human consumption generates nearly 15% of total greenhouse gas emissions worldwide — more than all transportation emissions combined.
Whereas an area the size of two football fields could feed 14 people living on a plant-based diet, the same area could only feed two people if used for animal agriculture, Casados said. So even reducing your meat consumption by just a couple meals a week can have a positive environmental impact, he said.
As far as plant-based meat alternatives — like Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods — go, while they taste a lot like meat and are a good transition food for people just starting a plant-based diet, they are highly processed and not much healthier than the real thing, Casados said.
Despite popular belief, Casados said, it is not difficult to get the vitamins, minerals, amino acids and protein from a plant-based diet. Though people should consume a large variety of fruits and vegetables for the full benefits of a plant-based diet.
“Diversity is the key to plant-based diets,” Casados said. “Just eat a bunch of everything — what we call the rainbow.”
A cup of broccoli, for example, contains more calcium than a glass of milk, Casados said. Meanwhile beans tend to be high in protein and potatoes offer both protein and complex carbohydrates — which are higher in fiber and nutrients than simple carbohydrates like sugar.
Really, people eating a plant-based diet only require two vitamin supplements due to the lack of meat in their diet, Casados said. About once a week, he recommends people who choose a plant-based lifestyle take Vitamin D and Vitamin B-12 supplements — although someone who spends time outside in the sun may not even require a Vitamin D supplement.
Noting that even some of the world’s largest animals — like elephants, horses and hippos — eat primarily plant-based diets, Casados said there is no reason humans cannot do the same. More frequently, he added, extreme athletes like ultramarathon runners are turning to plant-based diets for the benefits they can provide in terms of blood flow and energy levels.
“These athletes say their recovery time is shorter, they have plenty of energy, they can go forever,” he said. “There’s more oxygen moving with the blood with a plant-based diet. You’re really improving your energy level with the blood flow.”
Surveying the menu
A day full of physical activity is sure to leave stomachs growling. So in one of the county’s most active communities, it’s no surprise that most evenings tourists and locals alike flock to the restaurants, pubs and fast-casual eateries that line ski town streets.
As Summit County has grown over the years, Stiegelmeier said she has seen the restaurant and bar industry grow in tandem, especially as tourism has become more and more a feature of the county’s economy.
“By the nature of being a tourist town, you have to have quick-to-grab, satisfying foods. I think it’s human nature to want quick, satisfying things that aren’t really that good for you,” Stiegelmeier said. “It seems like there’s always more burgers and pubs and quick and easy fixes in Summit.”
But experts say that rather than giving into the craving for a quick fix right away, a little thought while surveying the menu can go a long way — especially for those who are physically active and want to maintain their energy levels for the next day’s outing.
“I’ve been to very few places that don’t offer healthy food,” Glasier said.
For those expending a lot of energy, healthy food is always going to be better, though he said he understands the allure of a burger and fries at the end of an exhausting day, Glasier said, and while a grilled chicken breast with whole grain rice is probably ideal all the time, that is simply not realistic for most Americans. However, replacing a burger patty with that chicken breast will cut down on fats that can inhibit a person’s ability to hydrate, and replacing french fries with steamed vegetables can provide more of the vitamins and nutrients the body needs to recoup after a long day.
Bettermann noted that, while tasty, processed and fatty fried foods can have a negative impact on people’s ability to recreate the next day. Greasy, heavier foods take longer to digest because of their high fat content, she said, leaving the stomach full for longer, which can increase the chances of heartburn and acid reflux.
“If we’re talking about discomfort while hiking, (fried foods) can wreak havoc on the gut the next day,” Bettermann said. “High-fat, processed foods are typically something to try to avoid.”
Plant-based fats like those found in avocados, nuts and seeds are often a better choice for those looking to engage in strenuous physical activity, she said.
Despite some popular myths about carbohydrates, Bettermann said carbs are an especially important food group that people should be sure to eat enough of — especially when exercising regularly, because the body uses carbs to make glucose for energy.
When choosing from a menu, people should consider how they normally eat — because changing that all of a sudden could shock the body — as well as how much they exercised that day and how much they plan to exercise the next several days, Glasier said.
Constantly consuming fatty processed foods or sugary sweets — which provide a quick energy boost then a crash — is likely to lead a highly active person to run an energy deficit and become burned out, he said. But, as long as these foods aren’t being consumed day-in and day-out, a physically active person is probably able to “cheat” a little bit more than their less active counterparts.
“That burger and fries and a couple beers is probably just fine,” Glasier said. “I wouldn’t have a problem with it.”
In fact, Glasier said, if he spent a day on the slopes, he would probably order a burger and a beer himself.
This story is from Summit Daily.