Let's be realistic. It's impossible to stick to a completely healthy diet while you're on a ski vacation. And with the abundance of chili cheese fries, microbrews and rich desserts, who in their right mind would want to? Well, some experts suggest that you stop feeling so guilty about straying a little. "For a couple of days, eating what you want won't harm your health," says Roxanne Moore, MSRD, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. "Plus, with such an active sport as skiing, you'll probably be burning most of the calories you eat anyway, and you'll equal out."
In fact, the biggest concern for skiers isn't overdoing it, but rather not getting enough calories. Many fall into the trap of skiing through meals, which can be far worse than eating too much. Food is a vital part of skiing strong and feeling your best. "If you don't eat regularly while you're on the slopes, your body won't be able to replenish its glycogen carbohydrate stores," Moore says. "By the third day, your energy will be down, and you'll be more susceptible to injury."
Even if you don't skip meals, just taking one quick lunch break won't cut it. "People forget that in addition to the activity of skiing, the cold and the weight of the extra clothing layers burn even more calories," says Leslie Bonci, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Skiers should eat three full meals and a whopping four snacks each day they're on the slopes. And while the après-ski scene always calls, it's not wise to head straight to the bar without refueling. "Don't wait until three hours after you leave the slopes to have your next meal," says Ed Burke, director of the exercise science program at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. "You need food right away. You'll feel better if you have a bagel or an energy bar within an hour of calling it a day." Even if you don't feel hungry, that doesn't mean your body has all the fuel it needs.
While carbohydrates are a skier's main energy source, what most people overlook is the need to add protein. Carbs provide immediate fuel, but protein has a time-release effect: It stays in the system longer and provides a more sustained energy. "Without it, you'll tire out quickly," Bonci says. What's more, protein helps the body produce antibodies to fight infection, which is especially important in winter with all the extra germs in the air. Bonci suggests that skiers combine protein into every meal and snack. "That doesn't mean it has to be pork chops exclusively," she says. "But if you're having a bagel in the morning, top it with cheese, peanut butter or even turkey. Eat protein-rich snacks such as trail mix, peanut butter crackers, bean dip and cheese."
Bonci admits this isn't always easy. The high-fat, high-carb fare is most readily available to skiers. "Eating protein requires more attention to detail and more planning," she says. What's more, in our carbohydrate-crazed culture, many people are unclear about how protein should fit into their diet. "There's been a lot of consumer confusion on this subject," Bonci says. "People are fat-phobic so they cut back on protein." The irony is that loading up on carbohydrates isn't a better option because the body converts unused carbs into fat anyway.
In addition to protein, try to incorporate warm, hearty foods such as oatmeal, soup and grilled sandwiches into your ski diet. While there's little hard evidence that certain foods contribute to the body feeling warm or cold, some studies have shown that eating oatmeal leads to a dilation in blood vessels, which increases warmth to the extremities, Bonci says. And at the very least, eating warm foods will simply help you feel good.
Though many resorts have gone gourmet, ski-trip food pickings aren't always fabulous. To get around that, most diet and nutrition experts suggest you bring some vittles along with you. "You're packing your clothes, skis and boots," Bonci says. "Why not pack some food? It's not a big deal, and it's a good backup plan. It can make your trip more enjoyable all around."