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Arctic Nutrition



Day in, day out, Arctic explorers and their sled dogs perform fantastic feats of endurance and strength. They maneuver sleds that can weigh more than 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) each across harsh, unforgiving terrain. On the move almost constantly--as much as 12 hours a day--the human explorers can burn up as much energy every day as someone running a marathon. Will Steger and members of his team will each burn 4,000 to 6,000 calories daily--the amount found in 70 slices of bread! To maintain their energy they must eat more than two pounds of food a day. However, what these explorers eat is as important as how much they eat. Their ability to perform and think clearly depends on proper diet. If nutrition and energy needs are not met, an explorer can suffer fatigue syndrome, a condition that causes dizziness and violent mood swings. Expedition members plan carefully to make sure they have enough of the right food to last the entire trip--for both people and dogs. Explorers also need water for drinking and food preparation. Dehydration is a danger during their long hours of physical exertion. Although snow is the most abundant source of water, it must be melted--a process that takes time and burns valuable fuel. An endurance diet can provide the energy and nutrients necessary for peak performance in the Arctic. In the past, such diets contained 35% of calories from fat. That's because fat is a concentrated energy source that supplies nine calories per gram. Carbohydrates and protein, on the other hand, provide four calories per gram each. But consuming fat does not allow the body quick access to calories. Current thinking favors a diet low in fat and high in carbohydrates. Carbohydrates supply large amounts of the sugar glucose. They can be stored in muscles and in the liver as a compound called glycogen, which quickly converts to sugar when needed, providing ready energy for exerting muscles. The Steger team will consume a diet in which 61% of calories come from carbohydrates and 26% from fat. They'll eat rice, pasta, and many grains and supplement those foods with products specifically designed for muscle recovery after strenuous exercise. On days of rest, the explorers will stock up on carbohydrates to replenish their muscle reserves of glycogen. A carbohydrate-rich diet does have drawbacks. Because it takes about twice the amount of carbohydrates to provide the same number of calories found in fat, the sleds must carry heavier loads. The explorers also must prepare more food and eat more often to refuel their bodies, requiring additional time and cooking fuel.
  • How do an explorer's energy needs compare with those of an average person going about normal day-to-day activities in your area?


Maybe you've heard the saying "You are what you eat." Each food you eat provides its own set of nutrients and calories. Every day you need to restock certain nutrients that your body uses as it moves, digests, thinks, grows, and repairs itself. By reading nutrition labels on food packages, you can learn more about what you're eating and what you need to help your body do its work.


  • nutrition labels from a wide variety of foods
  1. For one week, collect nutrition labels from different foods you eat. (Look on packages of cereal, yogurt, snacks, and frozen vegetables, for example.) Cut out the labels and bring them to school to share with others.
  2. Read and discuss the labels. Include in the discussion what the foods contribute in calories and nutrients. How much does the food weigh in the amount you normally eat at one meal? What foods provide a wide combination of nutrients?
  3. Figure out how much of the different foods would be required to make up the 4,000 to 6,000 calories an explorer needs each day. Compare the percentages of a person's daily nutrients that are supplied by each food.
  4. New requirements for food label information went into effect in May 1994, adding details in terms of "percent daily values" (%DV). Calculations are based on a 2,000-calorie diet, determining what percentage of your body's daily needs are provided by the food. Some labels also provide additional information on these values. Discuss how you can use this information to improve your food choices.
  5. Make a list of foods an explorer could take along for a seven-day trip. Consider the practicality of taking each food on a skiing or camping trip.


  • Rafoth, R. (1993) Bicycling fuel: Nutrition for bicycle riders (3d ed.). Mill
    Valley, CA: Bicycle Books, Inc.
  • Smith, L. (1993, July 13) Breakfast of champions. The Baltimore Sun, p. 1D.
  • Tilton, B. (1993, June) Hike farther, faster. Backpacker, pp. 28-29.
  • Tinley, S. & McAlpine, K. (1994) Scott Tinley's winning guide to sports endurance.
    Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press.
  • Wardlaw, G.M. & Insel, P.M. (1993) Perspectives in nutrition (2nd ed.). St.
    Louis: Mosby.

Additional sources of information

Arctic Institute of North America
The University of Calgary
2500 University Drive NW
Calgary, AB Canada T2N 1N4
(403) 220-7515

International Federation of Sled Dog Sports
Glenda Walling, President
7118 N. Beehive Road
Pocatello, ID 83201
(208) 232-5130

Community resources

Nutritionist or dietitian
Specialist at a sports medicine clinic
Marathon runner