What are the Health Benefits of Trail Mix?
Trail mix or gorp has been a staple in the hiking world for over a century and is a welcomed snack on a hot summer day or a cold winter afternoon. Today it has evolved well past the simple recipe that is GORP. If you don't know what GORP is, it has a couple of different meanings depending on who you ask...
"Good old raisins and peanuts" or "Granola, oats, raisins, and peanuts."
From salty and crunchy to sweet and savory, healthy trail mix can come in hundreds of combinations. Trail mix is not one thing, and it doesn't have to be made with any particular ingredients.
There is no right or wrong way to do it. As long as it's lightweight, easy to throw in your pack, and energy rich. Trail mix or gorp can be whatever the hell you want it to be. The health benefits of trail mix are going to vary from batch to batch, but one thing is for certain, the health benefits are there.
Common Ingredients in Trail Mix
When I think of trail mix the first thing that comes to mind is chocolate. For me, it's hands down the best part of any trail mix. Too much and you're going to have a sugar high followed by the inevitable crash, in extreme heat you may end up with a melted chocolate blob. Either way, chocolate is king in my trail mix world.
One of the best things about trail mix is that you have the freedom to make it your own. There is no right or wrong recipe when it comes to GORP. If you are health conscious, then go heavy on the nuts and granola, if you like it sweeter go heavy on the dried fruit and chocolate.
Most trail mix will include nuts, seeds, chocolate, dried fruit, and granola in different portions. You can purchase it at the store and add to it, or start from scratch and make it at home. Those are just the "most common" ingredients, it doesn't mean you can't use raisins and M&M's, have fun with it.
Health benefits of Nuts in Trail Mix
Are they a fruit? Legume? Seed?
Well, they are all three, depending on how who you ask.
Trail mix isn't trail mix without nuts. Whether it's almonds, cashews, walnuts, or peanuts. Take your pick, all of them have health benefits, and when mixed together they are a powerful, high energy, and tasty snack.
Walnuts, almonds, and nuts, in general, have a wide variety of healthy and energy-related reasons to add them to your next batch. There's a nut for everyone....
- Pine nuts
- Peanuts (Legume)
Nuts are High in Omega-3 Fatty Acids
These days we're being told on a regular basis the importance of having Omega-3 in our diets. Omega 3 fatty acids offer a wide range of health benefits for both your body and your brain.
Omega 3 fats are an essential fat, and our bodies can't make them from scratch, so the only way our bodies get them is the through the food we consume. Omega 3's are a key family of Polyunsaturated fats and they come in three different forms DHA, EPA, and LDL (source).
The first two, DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) are found in marine sources like salmon, lake trout, and albacore tuna. These make up the fish oil supplement market that has been aggressively marketed over the last few years.
The third kind ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) is what we're dealing with, it's found in nuts, seeds, some animal fats, leafy vegetables and common vegetable oils. ALA is the true essential Omega 3 fat, it is broken down into DHA and EPA, granted, at an extremely slow conversion rate (source).
Omega 3 Prevents Heart Disease
According to University of Maryland Medical School, a proven way to prevent and treat heart disease is to eat a diet that is high in polyunsaturated fats, specifically omega 3 fatty acids.
The Mediterranean diet is a perfect example of a diet that is low in saturated and trans fats and high in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. Mainly consisting of green vegetables, whole grains, fish, poultry, and olive oil.
Omega 3 is High in Good Cholesterol or HDL
Think of your bloodstream as the highway and the good cholesterol (HDL) as the cars on the highway and the bad cholesterol (LDL) are the passengers in the car. Good cholesterol is the vehicle for fats and bad cholesterol to be delivered through your bloodstream to your liver to be recycled.
It used to be believed that is was the number of passengers in the car or that (LDL) was a major factor in heart disease. However, recent studies have shown that it's the number of cars on the road (HDL) that make the biggest impact.
Peanuts (Legume), Walnuts, Hazelnuts, Pistachios, and Almonds are all high in HDL (source). Nuts are a major staple in any trail mix that you purchase or make at home. Considering the beneficial health properties of nuts you may want to throw a few extra handfuls into the mix.
Nuts are High in Calories
Under normal circumstances, something high in calories will tend to be avoided by most health-conscious individuals. When we are talking about trail mix, a high caloric value is exactly what we aim for.
On the average backpacking trip considering you are 165 pounds with a 30-pound backpack on you will burn anywhere from 4500-6000 calories. This is an estimate takes into account 3 variables. Your weight, the pack weight, and the time spent walking, regardless, the calories burned is going to be enormous, so high caloric intake is a necessity.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, one ounce of mixed nuts with oil and roasted contains 172 calories. On the other hand, meat only contains 28 calories per ounce. Nuts are a small but powerful snack on the trail.
Nuts contain Anti-Oxidants
According to WebMd, anti-oxidants have a part in the suppression and prevention of Alzheimer's, some cancers, and certain arthritis-related issues.
They also protect the body against free-radicals, which are harmful molecules that some experts believe are a contributing factor to a variety of different negative health conditions.
Anti-oxidants also contain vitamins C and E, selenium, and flavonoids. the best way to obtain anti-oxidants is through natural consumption rather than buying an over the counter supplement.
Health Benefits of Seeds in Trail Mix
For those of us with a nut allergy, seeds are the next best alternative when whipping up a batch of trail mix sans nuts. They offer a tasty alternative, and really the only alternative if nuts throw you into a case of anaphylactic shock.
Seeds are a nutritional powerhouse and are an important part of any diet. They are a fantastic source of fiber, monounsaturated fats, and Vitamin E and help keep your heart healthy and bodies disease free (source).
Hemp, Chia, and Flaxseed are not included here because they don't really make a good snack on their own or in trail mix. However, even though they are small, they are mighty in terms of the health benefits they present (source). These nuts are best used as a nutritious addition to your yogurt, oatmeal, smoothie, or granola.
Most commonly seen in the dugout of little league baseball games, sunflower seeds are rich in essential nutrients. Sunflower seeds like all other nuts on this list are a healthy source of fatty acids, as well as, a great source of vitamin E which is the bodies primary fat-soluble antioxidant.
Sunflower seeds are high in Selenium which is a vital mineral for immunity and takes part in reducing inflammation. Selenium is vital because it increases antioxidant capabilities and as well as blood flow. This, in turn, increases the bodies ability to fight against disease and stress (source).
Roasted Pumpkin seeds are a staple after any pumpkin carving session, and a common ingredient in Mexican cuisine referred to as Pepitas. Eating pumpkin seeds decreases the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.
Pumpkin seeds are rich in iron, zinc, antioxidants, and exceptionally high in magnesium. According to Medical News Today, magnesium plays a role in over 300 enzymatic reactions in the body and is one of seven essential macrominerals. Meaning that adding an adequate amount of magnesium to your diet can increase bone health, heart health, liver health, and diabetes.
Seeds are High in Protein
Seeds are similar to nuts in their beneficial properties, they are nutrient rich and a good source of protein. According to the USDA, they won't have as much as meat which has 22 grams per 3 oz, but coming in at 15 grams per 3 oz they are still considered high in protein.
Roasting seeds, like roasting nuts, will remove some of the benefits that you get from eating a handful of raw seeds. The best option is to go for raw seeds, as they contain the most bang for your buck. Throw in some spices to give them some flavor.
Health Benefits of Granola in Trail Mix
Granola is typically made with rolled oats, which are pressed flat and then lightly steamed with nuts, honey and puffed rice commonly added to the mix. The entire mixture is then baked until nice and crispy. It is often added to trail mix as a convenient energy-boosting snack that is a perfect snack on the go.
Granola is High in Fiber
Fiber is plant-based nutrient and a type of carbohydrate that cannot be broken down by your body. It passed through your digestive system more or less intact while doing a lot of work on its way through (source).
One of the biggest benefits of fiber is helping you digest your food, in other words, it helps you poo! High fiber intake is linked to the prevention of cancer and other chronic diseases which have become a more prevalent with the increase in sedentary lifestyle (source).
Granola is High Energy
A big reason that granola is such a popular choice for trail mix is the boost of energy it gives you on the trail. It doesn't fill your body with sugar (that's what the chocolate is for), instead, it gives you a healthy dose of manganese which is an important mineral for our bodies (source).
Granola is High in Vitamins E and B
Whole grain foods such as granola retain a larger portion of the vitamins and minerals than their refined counterparts. It contains a large amount of Vitamin E, Thiamine, and Folate which all have health benefits in their own right.
Vitamin E is a collective name for a larger group of fat-soluble compounds with antioxidant activities. It protects cells from the negative effects of free radicals which recent studies have linked to cancer, inflammatory joint disease, asthma, diabetes, senile dementia and degenerative eye disease.
Thiamine or Vitamin B1
Thiamine or vitamin B1 is water-soluble and is used in managing almost every cell in the body. It is especially important for metabolism and supporting energy levels, and when we're hiking or backpacking energy levels are a first priority (source).
Folate or Vitamin B9
Folic acid or vitamin B9 plays a critical role in our bodies overall health. It works in preventing obesity, cancer, heart disease, as well as birth defects (source). Folic acid is a powerful vitamin with numerous beneficial health effects, and another reason to use granola in your trail mix.
Health Benefits of Dark Chocolate in Trail Mix
Yep, you read that right. The health benefits of dark chocolate, at first glance it looks like an oxymoron, however, that couldn't be further from the truth. Dark chocolate is a seed that is found in the cocoa tree, and science has shown time and time again that it has a number of health benefits. One more reason to add sweet and savory dark chocolate to your next batch of trail mix.
Dark Chocolate Contains Flavanols
The main type of flavonoid found in dark chocolate is flavanols. They are a plant nutrient found in tea, red wine (yay!), blueberries, apples, cherries, pears, and peanuts. They are particularly prevalent in seeds of the cacao tree, which is exactly what dark chocolate is made from, awesome right?!
Well, not so fast, flavanol's are destroyed in the production process of making chocolate. Lucky for us, dark chocolate retains the highest amount of flavanols. According to Harvard Health they have been shown to lower blood pressure, improve blood flow to the brain and heart, prevent blood clots, and fight cell damage.
There was also a study ran by Italian researchers that tested the cognitive effect that flavanol's had on elderly subjects. It was a double-blind controlled study ran on 90 elderly people without evidence of any cognitive dysfunction. They found that after 8 weeks of consuming flavanol there was a significant increase in cognitive function, and that's science at its best.
Dark Chocolate is an Antioxidant Superfood
Antioxidants have a wide range of health benefits, and they are found in various foods such as grapes, blueberries, acai, red berries, nuts and of course cacao.
Cacao is the seed dark chocolate is made with and the higher the amount of cacao, the higher the antioxidantal benefits. Ignore the processed and refined candy bars and milk chocolate, dark chocolate has the highest content of cacao, therefore, the most beneficial properties.
According to By Dr Ananya Mandal, dark chocolate and cacao powder may be one of the next "superfoods" due to their high antioxidant properties.
Apparently, scientists have found that dark chocolate has higher antioxidant content than other well-known superfoods like acai, blueberry, and cranberries. Keep in mind it was conducted by a chocolate company, however, it was peer-reviewed and published in Chemistry Central Journal (source).
Dark Chocolate is Good for your Heart
According to Dr. Sinatra, studies have shown that eating dark chocolate in moderation benefits your heart by lowering your blood pressure. High blood pressure has been shown to damage your heart, brain, kidneys, and arteries (source). Needless to say, anything that can move the needle in terms of lowering your blood pressure is worth considering.
It lowers your risk of cardiometabolic disorders which are things like stroke, heart failure, and diabetes. The British Medical Journal evaluated seven studies on the relationship of chocolate consumption to cardiometabolic disorders. They found that 5 of the 7 studies showed chocolate intake accounted for a 37% reduction in the cardiovascular disease.
Health Benefits of Dried Fruit in Trail Mix
Last but not least, dried fruit because you don't want to find out what happens if you put fresh fruit into a bag of trail mix, trust me. The first benefit of dried fruit is the increased shelf life and portability since we're talking trail mix. Through the drying process, the fruit shrinks and you get an energy, nutrient, and healthy sugar dense snack.
Through the drying process, the majority of the water is extracted and the nutrients and calories are condensed into a much smaller package. Drying does destroy some nutrients like Vitamin C and Vitamin B, however, removing the water concentrates nutrients, dietary fiber, calories, and air-resistant vitamins into a smaller area (source).
High in Fiber and Phenols
The health benefits of fiber we already covered and they remain consistent. Whether you're talking about nuts, granola, dried fruit or anything else with fiber.
Plant phenols are strong antioxidants and they get in the way of all stages of the cancer process, possibly resulting in a lower cancer risk (source). People with diets rich in plant phenols have lower risks of heart disease, diabetes, a number of different cancers, and maybe degenerative brain disease (source).
High in Calories
Throughout the drying process, the calories remain more or less the same while the fruit loses volume and size. So while technically they aren't higher in calories than the fresh version, they are smaller in volume. Making them perfect for trail mix, you shoot for high calories and these are a shrunken version of your favorite fruit with the same caloric value, making it easier to shove handfuls in your face.
To Sum it Up
Adding nuts, seed, chocolate, granola, and dried fruit to your trail mix is a great way to have a high caloric and high energy snack. There isn't one way to do it, and you can use the ingredients listed above or freestyle an add your own flavor to it.
That's what makes trail mix such a great snack, there is something for everyone. It's not just for hikers, it's a healthy and fresh snack for anyone on the go. So get in your kitchen and get creative!