If you're travelling for business, what should you eat and when? We asked Alexandra Anca, a registered dietician and nutritional consultant based in Toronto.
What foods should you avoid eating when you fly and why?
There are two symptoms typically associated with flying. The first is dehydration because you're up at a higher altitude and typically the moisture content in airplanes is very low, only 10 to 20 per cent. The second is gastrointestinal discomfort because gases tend to expand when you're up in the air.
If it's just a two-hour flight, what you eat is not going to make that much of a difference. If you're on a long trans-Atlantic or overnight flight, you should avoid eating gas-producing foods such as carbonated beverages, or cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts. Sometimes meals on the flight come with coleslaw. Definitely avoid the coleslaw! It's cabbage and again part of the cruciferous family.
Also avoid foods that take longer to digest, such as anything that's rich or creamy or starchy foods. Too much fat and starch will cause more gas. Usually, you can get rid of gases that are produced normally just by walking around. In a flight, where you're mostly sitting, the gases tend to ferment and intensify and so the symptoms of discomfort are more pronounced.
What items should you skip in a typical airline meal?
If the meal offers some lean protein with some (non-gassy) vegetables on the side, that should be fine. Also limit your intake of fats and starches, so pass up the roll with butter and dessert. If the meal is heavy or creamy, consider skipping it. It's better to snack more frequently – every few hours – than have a larger, heavy meal with ingredients that may make you uncomfortable.
Can some foods help you deal with jet lag?
There are no specific foods that I'm aware of that help, but some groups of food can help. Again, on long flights you should reduce your intake of starches and focus on protein and easy-to-digest vegetables. If you have starches, then your blood sugar levels rise, giving you a boost of energy when you really should be sleeping.
There was a study by Harvard University researchers in 2008 that looked at how to combat jet lag with food. Essentially what they found was that not eating for about 16 hours or so can actually help you better manage the symptoms of jet lag because doing so readjusts your "feeding clock." The body has two internal clocks. One is your normal circadian rhythm – your natural clock governing when you wake up and go to sleep. The other is a feeding clock that takes care of the times when you're naturally hungry. The feeding clock can overtake your regular circadian rhythm clock. If you don't eat, you can reset the feeding clock – you start it up [by eating]and your body starts being active again because it hasn't had any food.
You could eat a healthy meal – something lean and easily digestible – before you get on the plane and just have a snack on the flight, such as a few nuts, a banana or yogurt that you bring with you. Then plan to eat an hour before landing or as soon as you land. It may help you deal with the effects of jet lag a lot better.
If you're stuck at an airport, what are the healthiest options to chose in a sea of fast food joints?
In the past few years, airport fare has become a little more sophisticated. There are quite a few cafes and outlets that sell healthier options such as paninis and ciabattas that can customize your sandwiches. Any time you can customize your order, go for lean protein such as chicken, turkey or fish and avoid any of the higher-fat-content toppings and dressings.
Do you have any trick for reducing fat or calories or sodium from standard menu items?
Often the protein sources – the poultry or meat – are already preseasoned, so it is very important to mention to the server not to add any additional salt. If they can grill from scratch, you can ask that they not add the seasoning. Typically, places like Pumpernickel's or Swiss Chalet will be able to customize your order. Sodium and fat are pretty much the biggest culprits with airport food.
If you do go to a restaurant, make sure you choose grilled poultry or meat instead of fried. When ordering salad, limit the amount of bacon bits, croutons or any of the crispy noodles, and ask for dressing on the side.
What nutritional snacks can you suggest to bring onboard, especially as many airlines don't offer food on short flights?
Some food outlets in airports have snack-sized yogurts and bananas. A source of protein and a source of natural sugar or carbohydrate are a good pairing to help you stay on an even keel energy-wise and keep you feeling satisfied. If you purchase your snacks after you pass through security, you should be able to bring them onboard. Another alternative is about one ounce of unsalted nuts like almonds. The portion sizes they sell are quite generous, so don't feel you have to eat them all. Stop at about 23 nuts and have them with a banana. Make sure you stay hydrated with water or unsweetened liquid like non-caffeinated tea. Apples are a bit gas-producing, so I don't recommend them on long flights. But those little snack-sized Babybel Gouda cheeses make a good snack to have with some crackers.
To drink or not to drink? Is it okay to have alcohol in moderation on a flight?
I don't think it would be detrimental to have one alcoholic beverage – four or five ounces of wine – on a flight as long as it's kept within moderation and not on an empty stomach. More than that could lead to behavioural issues. Beer would be gas-inducing, but it's not an issue on a short flight.
Alexandra Anca is member of the College of Dietitians of Ontario, Dietitians of Canada and is chair of the Consulting Dietitians Network. She also serves as nutrition adviser to the Toronto Chapter of the Canadian Celiac Association.