When are the best times to eat while traveling?

Sep 30, 2019

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Whether flying for business of pleasure, there is rarely a shortage of food along the way. The minute you arrive at the airport you are bombarded with food offerings, which are often consumed in excess before boarding where you then continue to continually graze for the length of your journey.

This may not be a problem for some but others may find it difficult to stick to their health goals, lose weight, perhaps recover from jet lag or just want to be as healthy as possible when traveling. For this reason, it’s important to know when best to eat when flying. Below we have a simplified guide explaining when are the best times to eat while traveling.

Eat before you board

Usually people are at the airport two hours before take off — a perfect time to eat something before boarding. Plane food often is less desirable than the food you can buy at the airport so it’s a perfect chance to find something healthy and balanced before you fly. As a rule of thumb, if your flight is less than three hours, then eat at the airport and not on the flight. Sample healthy meal options can be a chicken salad at Pret with some dark chocolate almonds or Itsu salad box with some dark chocolate rice cakes.

Plan meals according to your flight schedule

For general health, it’s good to eat every four to five hours and not to snack if you can. You don’t need to graze to support your metabolism, and in fact eating constantly can actually accelerate aging in the body. When it comes to flying, you need to work out when is best to eat according to your flight time:

  • For flights less than three hours: eat a meal when you get to the airport
  • For flights less than five hours: eat a meal at the airport and a snack on board
  • For flights more than five hours: eat a meal and optional snack on board
  • For flights more than eight hours: eat two meals on the plane

Factor in direction of travel

It can be of benefit to eat to match your intended circadian rhythm. So, your eating patten might depend if you are flying east or west:

  • Flying west: This involves going back in time, so often you will arrive for lunch or dinner. The idea here is to eat so you will complete the full day having had three meals. For example, if you arrive for dinner in L.A., then you would have had breakfast, lunch and a snack before you land.
  • Flying east: This involves going forward in time, so you tend to arrive either in the morning or afternoon the next day. So, you would eat to match that. If your flight is in the evening, then you perhaps can skip the dinner service and just have the breakfast (or second) service. If your flight is in the afternoon, then opt for an evening meal and breakfast on the plane.

Intermittent Fasting

Not eating when traveling can possibly help you recover from the flight and minimize jet lag. The process of intermittent fasting can be beneficial to cellular repair, weight loss, insulin and blood sugar management and also increase growth hormone.

Eat according to your health goals

Whatever advice you read or listen to, it’s important to keep things individual and do what works for you when traveling:

  • If you’re trying to lose weight: The golden rule here is to eat when you actually feel hunger and not when think you feel hunger. Keep yourself limited to three main meals in a 24-hour period and a snack if you need it.
  • If you’re trying to gain weight: This can be an unusual one and often reserved for those who are trying to gain muscle. While a plane journey won’t do much to interfere with your fitness goals, you may need to bring your own food as the airplane food may be sub-optimal or not be enough for you. For bulking, you would eat at the airport and of course each serving offered when flying. There could be a whole post on what to eat for the athlete, but the main consideration is to hit your protein and carbohydrate goals for the day. With all of this said, one day of traveling won’t do much if you take a break from your food intake unless you’re a competitive athlete.
  • If you’re trying to minimize bloating: Bloating is a very common side effect of plane travel and it’s usually due to the cabin pressure. Timing of meals may not matter too much here as some can get bloated no matter what and when they eat. The most common sense option is to minimize eating when on the plane and if you do, consider taking a probiotic the day of your travel and a digestive enzyme when eating a meal, whether before flying or on the plane. If you’re still getting symptoms of bloat, then you can perhaps ask the airline for a peppermint tea, which can also help.
  • If you’re trying to maximize energy: Energy is a complex one as there can be so many factors at play. These include how you eat, when you eat, what you eat as well as biochemical factors and lifestyle factors (stress, sleep, exercise). When traveling, a proposed way to maximize energy is to eat according to the time zone you are traveling to. So, it can be a good idea to set your clock the day of departure to the destination time zone and eat accordingly. You may also want to look at what you are eating, as loading up on sugar and alcohol will do little for your energy scores. Instead, pick protein-rich food options or take them with you and limit the amount of carbohydrates you are consuming.
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