When to eat when you fly – it’s all in the timing

When we fly we need to pay extra attention to what we put into our bodies, as the decisions we make about when we eat are as important as what we eat. 

Our bodies operate on circadian rhythms - approximately 24-hour changes governed by our internal clocks that determine many physiological processes. New research suggests that by delaying mealtimes, we can also delay our blood sugar rhythms by the same time frame, demonstrating that mealtimes help synchronise our internal clocks that control rhythms of blood sugar concentration.

So what does this mean for flying? Well, you might want to consider timing your meals to resynchronise your body clock so that you land feeling ready for your new time zone. Meals help to regulate your underlying rhythms so try to stick to the mealtimes of your destination time zone, also skipping the in-flight nightcap because alcohol can act as a stimulant. This could mean skipping a meal or asking staff to eat at a different time so you’re aligned with mealtimes at your destination.

Preparation before you fly is key. When possible choose a night flight so you’re more likely to sleep on the way to your destination. Also, if your flight is under 5 hours, eat before you get on the plane and avoid eating when you’re on board. Choose whole foods, vegetables, lean protein, eggs, nuts, antioxidant rich food and the well studies benefits of beetroot juice for an extra boost. If you travel frequently have your vitamin D levels checked regularly as travelling between time zones can lead to a reduced exposure to daylight. Vitamin D deficiency is common and linked to a range of health risks, including many cancers. There is also a genetic predisposition to not having effective Vitamin D metabolism this can be tested remotely and at The Aviation Nutritionist Clinic.

Avoid sugar  rich products such as soft drinks, processed foods, bakery items, sweets and non-fibre carb foods like white bread, and limit your caffeine intake. At night time, stay away from foods that are high in iron (such as red meat) as they can disrupt the liver’s circadian rhythm and cause it to be out of synch, enhancing glucose metabolism problems.

Staying hydrated on flights is also important as the pressurised cabins cause increased fluid losses. Symptoms of dehydration may include headaches or slight constipation. Take extra fluid on the plane with you as you don’t get served enough water on flights so your intake will often be inadequate. Electrolyte drinks which also include the jetlag preventative ingredient pine bark like 1Above make an excellent choice as they help balance the body’s natural salt balance and decrease urine and nutrient loss. Aim to drink approximately 1 glass minimum per hour during the flight. Think about if you intend to go to sleep for a majority of your flight that you don’t board the plane dehydrated so minimizing diuretics such as tea and coffee.

Some other tips to help make a smooth transition between time zones:

  1. Aim for  three satisfying meals  across a 24-hour  period

  2. Avoid large meals for 1-2 hours prior to sleep

  3. Eat  breakfast before sleeping in the day  to avoid waking due to hunger

  4. Be mindful of what you’re eating – eat because you’re hungry and avoid the emotional pattern of eating through boredom when travelling

To really feel good when you fly, it’s important to try and maintain a healthy and balanced lifestyle with exercise, regular meal times and good sleep patterns all the time. We’re all individual so have different requirements when we fly, but trying to understand that timing is as important as what we eat can help improve the challenges around travel and jetlag.