Nutrition on a world trip by bike
One of the reasons why we love to travel by bike is because you can eat a lot more on a cycling vacation than during a "normal" life. During a day in the saddle you consume an awful lot of calories and it is important to provide your body with sufficient and varied nutrition. Food is your fuel. It will give you a huge boost physically but also mentally to keep cycling. In this blog, we'll give you a little more explanation on how your body works during a cycling trip and share our favourite ingredients that you can always find in our panniers.
First, we want to give a bit more background on our own knowledge and interest in nutrition. Ever since Stefanie was 9 years old, she actually did not want to eat meat. It was clear to her from an early age that animal cruelty is totally unnecessary to eat good food. However, she had to eat what her parents cooked and it was only from the age of 18 that she began to switch more and more to a vegetarian lifestyle. Niels grew up in a family where meat and fish were on the table almost every day. It wasn't until he moved to Ghent, vegan capital of Europe, and met Stefanie that his perspective broadened. After looking up more information about it he decided to follow Stefanie's footsteps and start eating more vegetarian, but after a while Niels wanted to try to live completely plant-based. In 2020, during a lockdown in Spain, we enrolled in Sustainable Family's Sustainable Food course, which turned out to be a hit!
We ourselves believe that eating plant-based is the healthiest way to live, but only if you know well enough what you are getting into. Knowing which proteins you need, which sugars, which supplements are best to take... In addition, we think it is important to mention that we are being gentle with ourselves and others about this. By this we mean that vegan food is not a religion for us and we also leave room to cheat once in a while. Sometimes we are unexpectedly invited to people's homes and they'd have already prepared some fish or a nice cheese-lasagna. In those situations we eat that as well, but in moderation. Since we often bike off-road, we also find ourselves in situations where there are simply not enough fruits and vegetables. In these situations we have zero problems eating vegetarian.
Calorie consumption during a world trip
During a day in the saddle you consume a lot of calories. After a long cycling day of 4 to 6 hours, you can count on a consumption of 2,000 to 3,000 calories, depending on the altitude profile of that day and the weather. As a woman you will consume 10 to 20% less than as a man. You will also consume even more energy in extreme weather conditions and high winds. This energy consumption is purely from cycling and is separate from the daily amount you consume anyway. You can imagine that if you also go camping, you will consume even more. So consuming 4,000 to 6,000 calories while touring is certainly not an exception and you can never eat that many calories in one day. Being sustainable with your body is therefore necessary, and even on days when you can keep going, it is important to build in rest days. These are important to rest mentally and physically, but also to eat a variety of foods in bigger amounts to make up for those lost calories.
To supplement all this, you need different sources of energy to give your body energy. Slow energy is found in fats, fast energy is found in sugars. As cyclists, our heart rate is relatively low throughout the day, with a few spikes during some climbs. So eating plenty of fats is extremely important, as we spend at least half of our cycling time in a fat burning zone. That's why we try to put the biggest focus on healthy, saturated fats, supplemented with lots of fruits and vegetables and also carbohydrates. Carbohydrate intake is very important, but in our daily lives at home we are more moderate with them. As a cyclist, you can have a little more, as you will definitely burn these quick sugars during a cycling day.
As vegetarians/vegans, we are very often asked how we supplement our proteins. Not a strange question, because unfortunately most people are still convinced that your protein comes from animal nutrients. Besides the advantage of these animal proteins, where you can indeed get many different types of proteins in 1 piece of meat, the disadvantage is that you also get all the growth hormones that the cattle are fed. In addition, as a vegetarian (or even vegan) you rarely if ever have to worry about getting enough protein intake. If you eat a varied and have tofu, beans, nuts, etc. on a regular basis you are totally okay. What we do supplement with and recommend, even for people who are not vegetarian, is vitamin B12, plant-based Omega 3 and in the winter vitamin D. Of course we are not doctors so always consult this, but this is what works best for us.
Transporting food on a bicycle
People make fun of us when they see us lugging food around on bike trips. Panniers full of vegetables, granola bars, fresh fruit, tasty snacks and much more. However, these healthy foods are the basis for continuing to travel. Sometimes you have no choice but to survive on snacks because you won't encounter a supermarket for an extended period of time, but we are not big fans of that ourselves. If we, for example, don't come across any supermarket for a few days, we will always choose to pack heavy and carry some fresh fruit and vegetables with us. On a long distance cycling trip it is too important to take care of your body and this nutrition will do exactly that.
There is a big difference between the countries where you go on bicycle tours. In Europe, for example, the facilities are incredibly good and you will come across a good supermarket practically every day. This makes it easier to schedule your route, unlike, say, North America and probably other continents. Because of the at times gigantic distances, it is much more important to plan your supermarket visit there. This means that at times you carry 4 to 6 days' worth of food on your bike, which is not that fun.
We divide this food among our Ortlieb panniers, which, by the way, handle this tremendously well. We also have an extra backpack on the back of the bike, which sometimes makes it easier to distribute the weight, although this is definitely not a must. On our handlebars, we both use another small bag and voice bags to keep our snacks close at hand.
Our favourite ingredients
How does this knowledge translate into our dishes? We never really plan dishes far ahead and feel it's easier to carry around an abundance of good ingredients in our pannier. This way we can get creative with them along the way. These are our favourite ingredients for travelling by bike.
A life saviour for bike touring. By far one of the most commonly used ingredients on the road and something you get a lot of healthy fats and calories from for very little money. Maybe not smart to spread a few wraps with a thick layer of peanut butter every day in everyday life, but as a cyclist it won't hurt you. We often put a spoonful of peanut butter on a piece of fruit, delicious!
Super versatile, lightweight and healthy product that you can find cheap and almost everywhere. For breakfast it is perfect because the energy is released very slowly during the next hours instead of getting one hard boost like e.g. cornflakes.
Nuts and seeds
Seeds, nuts, pits... It's easy to find, although sometimes it can be expensive. The advantage is that it gives you a perfect mix of good proteins and fats. Perfect as a snack inbetween but also ideal at the end of a long day of cycling. Every morning we add a spoon of flaxseed in our oatmeal or even on the wraps. Super healthy fats that everyone can use.
Those of you who follow us on Instagram have no doubt seen it pass by a few times, we eat a lot of wraps. But, A LOT! It's often cheap, lightweight and very easy to take with you. White wraps for breakfast with peanut butter, chocolate, nuts and raisins, delicious and lots of energy. Whole wheat wraps for lunch with some humus, avocados and fresh greens. Vitamin bomb!!
If it's dates, raisins, figs, mango..., for us it doesn't really matter. Generally relatively inexpensive and also lightweight to carry. We always carry dried fruits with us and often combine it with nuts. These healthy sugars are perfect while you are on the bike and need an extra push of energy to climb that last hill.
We love fruit, but if one stands out it's a delicious banana. They are high-energy and delicious as a snack (they boost 120 calories as carbs), but also perfect to add to any breakfast.
Beans and legumes
At dinner we try to always incorporate two to three types of vegetables into a dish. To these we add legumes such as beans, lentils.... These each have their own characteristics but we can quickly agree on one thing, all of them are an incredibly good source of nutrition. For example, beans are full of magnesium and calcium and help prevent muscle cramps. Lentils are full of protein and are referred to by many cyclists as a kind of super food because they contribute to endurance sports. They are high in iron and provide oxygen to the muscles. There is 1 drawback to this, the dried beans and lentils need to cook very long so we buy them canned, which is heavy to carry around.
During cycling trips you often don't have a lot of choice in food. You have to think about the weight on the bike + you depend on the facilities along the way. A golden tip: Take plenty of herbs with you! These can brighten up even the dullest meal and still give that extra push at the end of the day. We always carry a jar of salt and garlic powder, as well as a few different mixes of spices. In addition, cinnamon is ideal to add to your breakfast and we use turmeric in the evening. That's perfect for preventing body inflammation.
Where in daily life we actually rarely eat them, during a cycling trip they often come to the rescue. We combine different types of bars, focusing on fast sugars during the day and a protein bar at the end of the day for recovery. They are also ideal on colder days where you prefer to keep lunch as short as possible and cycle as much distance as possible. We already heard from many cyclists that for lunch they survive on energy bars solely, but that seems much less interesting to us. Both in terms of long-term health, but also because it's just much tastier to take your time for a satisfying lunch.
Nutritional yeast flakes
A bomb of protein that we can use all too well at the end of the day. We add it to our pasta, sauce or just as an extra on the wrap. Very fine substitute for cheese. It's also a good source of vitamin B and folic acid which supports the immune system.
We heard this idea from other cyclists and had a hard time imagining it until we tried it ourselves. On days when you encounter a supermarket in the afternoon, it is very interesting to strap a frozen bag of mixed vegetables to your bike. These can defrost on your bike during the day and in the evening you don't lose time chopping the vegetables. Just add them to a nice pasta and you're done. You shouldn't worry about the nutritional values either, because you don't actually sacrifice anything compared to regular veggies.
We'd rather be honest about this, because these freeze-dried meals generally don't really appeal to us. They are often expensive, uncreative and become monotonous to eat after a while. We still remain of the opinion that, if you have the chance, it is much more fun and healthy to work with fresh and varied food. That said, these freeze-dried meals can come in incredibly handy.
For example, we used the website of Xfood.nl to order dehydrated meals for our trip through Iceland. We were hugely surprised by the quality of some of the brands and we wrote about this in detail in our blog 'Cycling in Iceland'. A big advantage is that they offer huge amounts of nutrients for very little weight, so in our eyes it can be perfect for bikepacking trips or for hiking trips. We always make sure we carry 1 dehydrated meal per person as an extra, this is very handy for emergencies.
Cooking set for a cycling trip
What do you like to eat during a cycling trip?