Before I launch into this topic, I wanted to introduce someone who is a key part of my clinical team and the work I do.  It took me a while to find the right dietician to work with, but finally Prerna Uppal has been the one I’ve been searching for.  She has decades of experience as a registered dietician and a certified diabetes educator who has worked in the US and abroad in India, she co-hosts my weekly radio show on health, she sees high risk patients with me in my clinic, and now she is going to start sharing some of her extensive knowledge of nutrition, exercise, stress reduction and ayurvedic principles on my blog and also our Facebook page.  Be sure to follow us on Facebook since we will be posting more practical tips there in addition to answers to common questions we get in the clinic and during health seminars.

Based on our last radio show, we got lots of questions about healthy options during plane travel since summer is upon us.  I used to really look forward to plane trips as a child.  Today, I dread them.  The stressful process of checking in, the cramped and uncomfortable seats, the horrific lack of healthy food choices….I could go on and on and if it’s not obvious already, I don’t travel business or 1st class which would obviously be a completely different experience.  Some tips for making your plane ride a little healthier:

1. Prepare for your flight:  Treat your plane journey like a sporting event.  Exercise, eat healthy, avoid alcohol completely, and hydrate very well for at least 2-3 days before your flight since planes have a very dry climate that leaves you parched.  Dehydration also worsens jet lag and I consider every day of jet lag during vacation a complete loss of valuable time.  I know getting ready for a trip can be chaos as you pack, prepare and tie up loose ends at work and home before departing, but I guarantee that adding just a little control to that chaos with good nutrition, hydration, and even some light activity/exercise will help you recover quicker.  In addition, all of the measures mentioned above will also reduce your risk of catching an infection which is all too common during air travel.

2. Pack some healthy snacks: I brainstormed with Prerna and came up with the following list of some snacks we take with us.  We believe in nutrient-dense, high protein snacks that have some fat to keep you satiated.

  • Mini-avocados: these are easy to peel and are filling with a great nutrient profile. Do you remember how avocados can counteract the inflammatory effects of unhealthy foods?  If not, read my prior post on nutrient interactions.
  • Nuts:  I favor unsalted and unflavored nuts.  Not because I’m afraid of the salt and its effect on my health, but because personally a handful of unsalted nuts does not trigger the insane hunger and cravings that a handful of salted or spiced/masala nuts does. Remember, it’s not just about the nutrient density of a particular food, but also the downstream hunger it generates.  Sugar has the same effect…how many of you can stop at one handful or small packet of honey roasted nuts the planes typically serve?  It’s a great business tactic aimed at getting you to purchase more of their food!  Some of my favorite nuts to pack are almonds, walnuts, macadamia nuts (incredibly nutrient dense) and brazil nuts (loaded with selenium, a key mineral).
  • Veggies and Fruit:  Crispy snack-like vegetables like mini-cucumbers, baby carrots, sugar snap peas and celery sticks work great and are easily spreadable (see nut butters below).  Most stores have mini variety pack containers of these types of veggies you can bring with you.  If you’re craving dip, hummus and guacamole are good choices. Fruits like apple wedges, pears, berries (can get squished during plane rides so consume early on), pitted fruits and citrus are good choices.  I like to avoid tropical fruits high in sugars (mango, bananas, pineapples, etc.) since a sedentary plane ride can convert excess fruit sugar (aka fructose) into fat and raise blood glucose.  In general, try to pack more veggies than fruits and yes, these are allowed on flights but need to be eaten or discarded before you disembark.
  • Boiled Eggs: A highly nutritious and filling portable meal that should be consumed during the early part of your journey to avoid stinking up the cabin and offending surrounding passengers.  If they complain about the odor, ask them to put on their oxygen mask. Concerned about adverse effects of eggs on your health?  If so, read my prior post on eggs which will hopefully give you some peace of mind. That post was written by me in 2013 and if you’re skeptical, the latest nutrition guidelines for 2015 are now easing the restrictions on dietary cholesterol (choose natural sources of course) as is highlighted in this NY times article.
  • Nut Butters: Nut butters come in small squeeze packets (Justin’s is a popular brand) and can be used to cover a stick of celery or a wedge of apple.  This to me is more of an emergency snack, because like the salted or sweet nuts, it can generate downstream hunger, but at least it’s dense and filling.
  • Homemade Trail Mix: Use unsweetened nuts, seeds, unsweetened coconut flakes and maybe add a pinch of salt (I like pink himalayan), pepper or spice/masala along with some lemon juice.  If you must maybe just a touch of dried fruit, but best to avoid.  Please no M&Ms and chocolate chunks…whose idea was it to contaminate traditional trail mix with candy?
  • Lettuce/Cabbage Leaves: I’ve done this on long car rides and will add to my plane pack list.  Bring a half dozen crispy lettuce/cabbage leaves in ziploc and transform any airplane sandwich or burger into a lower carb lettuce or cabbage wrap.

3. Choose airport food over airplane food:   Most airports offer enough healthy options and far more variety, freshness and flavor than what’s served on airplanes.  Prerna mentioned the Airgrub app to me which lets you choose a restaurant close to your gate so you can order a meal, pay in advance, and then pick up your selected food without standing in line.  I haven’t tried it yet, but sounds like one more convenient way to eat healthy and delicious meals on the plane without having to fly first class.

4. Watch what you drink:  Prerna informed me that airline staff commonly use non-dairy creamer for tea and coffee.  Depending on the brand, non-dairy creamer can have a mix of partially hydrogenated soybean oil, high fructose corn syrup and all other types of chemicals.  In fact some brands have been found to be flammable.  See the video below:

If we’re trying to fight an inflammatory lifestyle, this is literally adding fuel to the fire.  My general rule of thumb is not to consume foods that can set objects on fire!  Ask for warm milk or cream instead which is also more filling and if you’re afraid of full-fat dairy, read my take on this here.

One of my favorite drinks on the plane used to be ginger ale.  It’s the only place I used to drink it.  Not sure why.  Kind of like popcorn cravings at the movies.  Unfortunately most brands are made with metabolically toxic high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) which triggers fat formation in your liver.  Avoid all sodas, including diet, and opt for water.  If you crave carbonation, get sparkling water and ask for fresh lemon or lime.  For others, I know cocktails are the beverage of choice.  Alcohol during a sedentary plane ride is not the best choice, but if you must, limit portions and try to stick to wine or spirits and stay away from sweetened cocktails.  Also keep in mind that for some, alcohol can worsen jet lag and be sure to drink plenty of water if you plan to imbibe.

5. Try Intermittent Fasting (aka “IF”):  An airplane ride is a great time to practice intermittent fasting and if you don’t know what that is, read my book and stay tuned since it’s coming up in a future post.

6. Stand, walk and stretch:  Aside from the risk of blood clots from prolonged sitting, prolonged sitting also increases fat storage.  We already see this epidemic in sedentary office workers, so you can imagine what an 18 hour flight can do to your metabolism, especially if you’re eating the wrong types of foods. I’m the guy in the back of the plane who’s constantly stretching.  Set a timer on your device as a reminder to stand up and walk or use your activity tracker to keep you motivated.

7. Meditate:  What better time to initiate the practice of meditation than when you’re enclosed in a flying capsule drifting through the clouds with steady ambient engine noise to help drown out distracting thoughts.  Maybe test out some of the Apps and cool devices for stress reduction like I discuss here and recommend in my book, or download some calming music or spiritual chants to get you in the mood.  There are also some wonderful self-help and meditation podcasts you can consume during your plane trip.

8. Connect with family and loved ones live:  I know it’s tempting to pull out the laptop and catch up on work or immerse yourself in your devices, but how about playing cards or hangman with your child or actually having a face-to-face conversation with a loved one for a change.  We are all so incredibly busy with our daily lives that a long journey is often an opportunity to reconnect with each other.

You can use most of these same principles for any mode of transportation…trains, automobiles, etc.  What are some ways you stay healthy on planes?  How are you going to make your summer travels healthier?  Share your ideas in the comments section and we wish everyone safe, happy and healthy travels!