Photo credit: Zombie Supermarket by Jessica Ober
Feeding ourselves adequately and safely is the most basic of human needs. For many of us food is plentiful and overeating more of an issue than hunger or starvation.
I remember tossing out food — scraping heaps of food from our dinner plates into the compost bucket —simply because it had sat untouched on someone’s plate for the duration of a meal.— from Into the Forest by Jean Hegland
Post-apocalyptic stories force us to consider situations where the infrastructure supporting our current lifestyles has collapsed and filling our bellies becomes problematic and even hazardous.
Mostly he worried about their shoes. That and food. Always food.— from The Road by Cormac McCarthy
But just what do we need, nutritionally, in order to survive the aftermath of an apocalypse?
Adequate nutrition is composed of nutrients and energy (calories/kilojoules). In the short term survivors could get by on carbohydrates and fresh water. In the long term, without access to a varied diet including fresh fruit and vegetables, nutrient stores within the body will become depleted and deficiencies may arise.
Nutrients can be divided into three groups, macronutrients which we require in large quantities, macrominerals which we require in smaller amounts and micronutrients which we require in trace amounts.
Macronutrients include carbohydrates, fats and proteins.
Carbohydrates are required primarily for energy and are the only fuel the brain can use. Only a small amount of carbohydrate is stored in the body as glycogen so a constant dietary source is essential.
Fats are an excellent source of energy and required for fat soluble vitamins, to maintain cell membranes and provide insulation. However, most people have ample bodily fat stores and would survive an extended period without access to dietary fats.
Proteins can also be used for energy but are more important for construction and repair within the body. Children in particular would suffer stunted growth without access to protein.
Macrominerals include calcium, sodium, potassium and phosphorous. These are important for fluid balance, acid-base balance, nerve and muscle function and bone health.
Micronutrients Include both water-soluble and fat-soluble vitamins and trace minerals which are essential for myriad chemical processes throughout the body.
Consequences of not meeting nutritional needs
In the beginning the body will call upon its stores of energy and other nutrients. Prolonged dietary deprivation will lead to deficiency symptoms and diseases (see Table below), growth retardation in children, and eventually starvation. Starved adults may lose as much as 50% of their normal body weight. Organs and muscles will shrink and cease to function, blood will lose its ability to deliver oxygen, body temperature will drop, the immune system will malfunction and the brain will slow down. There is no definite number of days that a human can survive without food, but a common estimate is eight to twelve weeks.
Last night Eva wanted to open the final jar of tomatoes to flavour our rice. But ever since I read about limes in the encyclopedia I’ve been worrying about scurvy.— from Into the Forest by Jean Hegland
Post-apocalyptic sources of nutrition
If you’re not a prepper then you probably haven’t stocked a bunker with canned, bottled, dehydrated, smoked and pickled foods. You also probably haven’t stocked up on guns and ammo to defend your food stores. So how are you going to feed yourself when the apocalypse comes?
Well firstly it depends upon the nature of the apocalypse. If the majority of the human population succumb quickly to a supervirus or natural disaster (or shift to a diet composed exclusively of human flesh) then presumably there will be plenty of pre-packed food for scavenging for at least the first few months if not years.
While she’s eating, she thinks about how smart it was for God to make meatskins [flesh-eating zombies] not interested in real food so there would be plenty left for regular folk.— from The Reapers are the Angels by Alden Bell
On the other hand an apocalypse that affects infrastructure without an immediate impact on human populations (such as a gamma-ray burst, electromagnetic pulse or the collapse of the food chain due to environmental pressures) could leave a lot of hungry people competing for dwindling supplies.
Food sources in urban environments
The first stop for urban survivors is the supermarket (also the classic backdrop for a zombie ambush). Three days is often bandied about as the number of days worth of food available in the supermarkets. Rice, grains and flour as well as dried legumes are excellent sources of carbohydrates and protein and keep well as long as they are kept dry. Fresh fruit and vegetables will spoil relatively quickly, especially if there is no electricity supply, but canned fruit and vegetables are still an excellent source of nutrients. Keep in mind that panic-shopping and the concurrent violence will rapidly empty the shelves.
They kicked through the trash in the aisles of a foodmarket. Old packaging and papers and the eternal ash. He scoured the shelves looking for vitamins. He opened the door of a walk-in cooler but the sour rank smell of the dead washed out of the darkness and he quickly closed it again.— from The Road by Cormac McCarthy
I would also suggest throwing vitamin and mineral supplements into your cart so that you can be sure you are getting your micronutrients and macrominerals (especially when all you’ve eaten for weeks is dog food and weevil-infested flour).
Institutional kitchens and restaurant kitchens will also be a rich source of stored food in the cities.
Once the supermarkets, kitchens and food-storage warehouses have become depleted, or are appropriated by gangs of gun-toting thugs, survivors will need to get more creative.
…with a full belly, and a good harvest in the barn, and a fire in the hearth, there’s nothing so charming, so generous, no one more decent than a well-fed man. But take away his food, make his future uncertain, let him know that no one’s watching him and he won’t just kill you, he’ll come up with a hundred and one reasons why you deserve it.— from Far North by Marcel Theroux
For those hungry enough to risk confrontation with other survivors, private homes will present another source of foodstuffs.
Crate upon crate of canned goods. Tomatoes, peaches, beans, apricots. Canned hams. Corned beef. Hundreds of gallons of water in ten gallon plastic jerry jugs.— from The Road by Cormac McCarthy
As well as the contents of pantries, larders and bunkers, many homes, especially in older suburbs, have mature fruit trees and veggie patches. These can be an excellent source of fresh food during the growing season. Some fruit trees may bear fruit for years without any attention from a gardener and some veggies may self-seed and produce new crops. This is all assuming environmental conditions are favourable and rainfall is adequate.
Another, hardier, source of nutrients in the urban environment are edible weeds such as dandelion and purslane. Although the average survivor would probably not be confident enough to start eating whatever is growing through the cracks in the footpath.
Food sources in rural/bush environments
Survivors who flee the city or who find themselves in a rural or bush setting when the apocalypse hits, have some additional options.
The Australian bush contains a plentiful supply of edible and nutritious plants and insects. The trick is knowing exactly which species are edible and being able to confidently identify them.
Tonight it came to me, as we sipped our bedtime cups of white tea — surely there is more than just and afternoon’s treat of berries in the woods. Surely the forest is filled with thing to eat.— from Into the Forest by Jean Hegland
Crops, orchards and farms containing livestock will also be a source of fresh food, just watch out for the farmer pointing a gun at you from the window of the farmhouse.
Those familiar with hunting and fishing will have access to a supply of protein from game such as rabbits, birds, possums, wallabies and even abandoned domestic pets (people are going to become less picky as hunger sets in).
When I could finally stand, I walked over to her, bent to meet the creature whose life I had taken… I threw up until there was nothing left… I wept for this sow and her shoats. I wept from exhaustion and excitement and I wept because I knew that when I stopped, somehow I had to turn that heap of muscle and gristle into meat.— from Into the Forest by Jean Hegland
If survivors are fortunate enough to find somewhere secure to settle down they may even try their hand at growing their own veggies. But this is a long term plan and it is a lot of work to produce enough food to live on.
…I passed the garden. It was a mess, and I felt a stab of failure and guilt. We didn’t even finish harvesting last fall. We never pulled plants or saved seeds or mulched. We hadn’t pruned the orchard. We should have started seedlings indoors by the stock back in February. We should have planted the cold weather crops last month. We should be setting our tomato, pepper, cucumber and melon starts now.— from Into the Forest by Jean Hegland
Lastly you can bet that even if you aren’t yet considering what’s euphemistically known as ‘long pork’ or ‘the other other white meat’, someone out there is already eating it.
Huddled against the back wall were naked people, male and female, all trying to hide, shielding their faces with their hands. On the mattress lay a man with his legs gone to the hip and the stumps of them blackened and burnt. The smell was hideous.— from The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Finding food is one challenge. Being sure that it is safe to eat is perhaps even more important. Eating food contaminated with organisms such as salmonella or Ecoli or choosing the wrong weeds or bush foods could lead to a bout of incapacitating poisoning and for those already compromised by malnutrition, could be deadly. Improper cooking of some foods could result in parasitic infections.
In the pantry were three jars of homecanned tomatoes. He blew the dust from the lids and studied them. Someone before him had not trusted them and in the end neither did he…— from The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Wild plants can kill you, I heard my mother say as Eva poured the berries into my palm.— from Into the Forest by Jean Hegland
If you take the route of cannibalism you could expose yourself to prion diseases such as kuru. And if you find yourself in a zombie apocalypse make sure any people you decide to eat haven’t already been bitten because no one knows the consequences of eating tainted meat.
From The Walking Dead comics by Robert Kirkman
If you don’t have access to safe drinking water you won’t survive even if you have an abundant supply of food. But that is a whole story in itself.
When the apocalypse comes the unprepared are going to find it challenging to maintain an adequate level of nutrition. We can either turn away and deny that it will ever happen, hope we don’t live to suffer through it or join the ranks of preppers stocking their bunkers for the impending collapse. At the very least I think I’ll get myself a guide to edible weeds and bush foods. Just in case.
In the barn they scavenged a few handfuls of some grain he did not recognize out of the dusty floor of a metal hopper and stood eating it dust and all.— from The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Table: Examples of important nutrients, their functions in the body, their dietary sources and the consequences of deficiencies. This is not an exhaustive list.
||Deficiency Diseases and Symptoms
||Provide energy the body needs to work and support other functions. Provide up to 65% of energy needs
|Wheat and grain products (such as bread and pasta), rice, sugary foods, fruit, honey, vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds
||Lethargy, wasting, ketosis (nausea, light-headedness and fatigue)
||Growth, repair and manufacture of essential biologically active molecules. Also a source of energy when carbohydrates are unavailable. Provide between 10-35% of energy needs
||Meats, chicken, eggs, beans, nuts, lentils, fish, cheese and milk. Smaller amounts found in grains
||Protein energy malnutrition, weight loss, muscle wasting , impaired immune function, growth retardation in children
||Concentrated source of energy. Source of fat soluble vitamins. Maintain cell membranes and manufacture of some biologically active molecules, provide insulation.
||Meat, chicken, milk products, avocado, cooking oils and fats, cheese, fish and nuts
|Lethargy, fat soluble vitamin deficiency, loss of fat stores in body
||Bone and tooth strength. Proper functioning of cells throughout body, normal blood pressure
||Milk, cheese and dairy products. Smaller amounts in some nuts and seeds
|Osteoporosis (bone loss), stunted growth in children
||Fluid and electrolyte balance, nerve and muscle function
||Widespread in foods (especially processed foods)
||Muscle cramps, mental apathy, loss of appetite
||Fluid balance, nerve and muscle function
||Milk products, fruit and vegetables, mushrooms, pulses, nuts, lean meats
||Increased blood pressure, kidney stones, bone loss, irregular heartbeat, muscular weakness
||Works with calcium to promote the formation of teeth and bones. Maintains acid base balance in the body
||Milk and milk products, grains, nuts and legumes, lean meats
|Muscular weakness, bone pain
|Water soluble vitamins
||Energy metabolism and nerve function
||Pork, whole-grain or enriched breads and cereals, legumes, nuts and seeds
||Beriberi, enlarged heart, cardiac failure, muscular weakness, apathy, confusion, irritability, weight loss
||Energy metabolism, normal vision and skin health
||Milk and milk products; leafy green vegetables; whole-grain, enriched breads and cereals
||Ariboflavinosis, sore throat, cracks in corners of mouth, sore tongue, skin problems
||Energy metabolism, nervous system, digestive system, and skin health
||Meat, poultry, fish, whole-grain or enriched breads and cereals, vegetables
||Pellagra, diarrhoea, vomiting, sore tongue, depression, apathy, fatigue, memory loss, headache
||DNA and new cell synthesis
||Leafy green vegetables and legumes, seeds, orange juice, and liver; most refined grains are now fortified
||Anaemia, confusion, weakness, fatigue, irritability, headache, shortness of breath, neural tube defects in unborn child
||Antioxidant, protein metabolism, immune system health, aids in iron absorption
||Fruits and vegetables
||Scurvy, anaemia, bone fragility, joint pain, poor wound healing, infections, bleeding gums, loose teeth, hysteria, depression
|Fat soluble vitamins
||Vision, healthy skin and mucous membranes, bone and tooth growth, immune system health
||Fortified milk products, eggs, liver
The precursor beta-carotene can be found in leafy, dark green vegetables; dark orange fruits and vegetables
|Infectious diseases, blindness, keratinisation
||Antioxidant, protects cell membranes
||Polyunsaturated plant oils, leafy green vegetables; wheat germ, whole-grain products, liver, egg yolks, nuts and seeds
||Nerve damage, red blood cell damage
||Formation of haemoglobin to carry oxygen around the body
||Meat and meat products
Eggs, bread, green leafy vegetables, pulses, fruits
|Anaemia, weakness, fatigue, impaired immunity, inability to regulate body temperature
||Normal metabolism of cells
||Iodised salt, sea vegetables, yogurt, cow’s milk, eggs, and cheese, fish, plants grown in iodine-rich soil
||Underactive thyroid, goitre, mental and physical retardation in children
||Growth, development and wound healing
||Fish, meat, beans
|Growth retardation in children, impaired immune function, eye and skin lesions, hair loss