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15 Expert Tips for Eating Healthy on Planes

Jan. 16, 2019
12 min read
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Airplanes are great for many reasons. They help travelers reach destinations fast and catch up on the latest films, and frankly, they're one of the few places left on earth where you can reasonably slip off the grid.

But they’re not so great when it comes to staying healthy.

While some carriers, including Delta Air Lines, have made a concerted effort to push healthier meals and snacks, travelers are too often stuck with edible versions of cardboard, grayish mystery meat or otherwise tasty meals packed with salt (not ideal when you’re already dehydrated).

When you take into account the lack of options at airport terminals, you’re pretty much set up to fail any attempt at eating a balanced meal.

To help you stay on track — and make sure you don’t feel like garbage when you land — The Points Guy asked nutritionists, fitness trainers, athletes, veteran flight attendants and other wellness experts to reveal their top tips and tricks for eating healthy on planes.

Control Your Appetite

Flight attendant Eric Foy spends most of his days on planes. So while you’re worrying about the occasional cupcake that your colleague brought to the office, Foy’s only option is plane food. That’s why he always makes sure to have two things on hand.

“I stick to almonds and water,” Foy said. “They help to control your appetite and keep you feeling full longer. Lots of times when we are dehydrated we mistake it for hunger and grab snacks on the plane we could most likely do without. I drink about three liters of water a day to avoid that.”

Eat Around Unhealthy Items

If you’re still hungry and can't skip the airplane meal, Foy recommended skipping the bread or removing the bun from a burger. Most meat-based airplane meals come with a side salad, so eat that first before moving on to the unhealthier components of the dish.

Plane time is the right time for a family meal.
Always start by eating the side salad and protein components of an airplane meal. (Photo by Benji Stawski / The Points Guy)

Bring Protein Bars

Another way to fend off hunger and avoid the prepackaged airplane dishes? Keep a supply of clean, nutrient-filled snacks in your carry-on.

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“We suggest snacks with plenty of protein to keep you fueled, like the Tone It Up Protein Bars,” said Karena Dawn and Katrina Scott, certified personal trainers, nutrition coaches and co-founders of the Tone It Up fitness app. “They deliver 10 grams of plant-based protein and they're easy to stash in your carry-on. You'll save money and ensure you're getting all the nutrients you need.”

Gorin agreed that packing bars is a good idea. “I rely on fruit-and-nut bars when I travel because they offer filling protein, fiber and healthy fats that help fill me up in a pinch,” she said. “I like to travel with a stash of KIND Minis, which are smaller bars for 100 calories or less. This is a much healthier option than buying a candy bar or box of M&Ms on board the plane.”

Other well-liked protein bars include RXBARs (12 grams of protein and all-natural flavors) and EXO Protein Bars, which derive their protein from cricket powder.

Avoid Liquor and Caffeine

Sure, you want to kick back and relax on a plane — and you might want to order a little adult beverage to help. But that’s exactly precisely what you should avoid, according to Dawn Jarvis, senior director of nutrition science and educational content for Garden of Life, a manufacturer of organic nutritional supplements.

“The best thing you can do to stay healthy on a plane is to avoid all drinks except for water,” she said. “It is a well-known fact that flying tends to dehydrate the body. So avoiding alcoholic drinks [that] dehydrate the body and brain is important.”

Dehydration can cause headaches and leave you feeling hung over, so it’s extremely important that you drink water during your flight. And avoid drinks that are high in sugar and caffeine, as they act as diuretics.

Hydration on long journeys is important, and drinking caffeine and alcohol will just get in the way. (Photo via Shutterstock)
Hydration on long journeys is important, and drinking caffeine and alcohol will just get in the way. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Carry Tea Bags 

OK, so it's important to stay hydrated on a plane. But plain water isn't the only option. You can get more health benefits by changing up what you drink during the flight and packing your favorite tea bags.

“Tea, like chamomile, can be very calming on a long flight,” said New York City-area nutritionist Amy Gorin. “And ginger or peppermint teas can help calm tummy troubles. Typically, the only type of tea the flight attendant is going to offer you is black tea. So, just ask for hot water and brew your own.”

Steer Clear of Bloating

Beans, lentils and cruciferous vegetables may be extremely healthy, but on an airplane, they can lead to serious discomfort.

"[They] produce gas, and [are] bound to make you incredibly uncomfortable on your flight," said Dr. Mehmet Oz, a heart surgeon and host of "The Dr. Oz Show."

"Your gut expands like the bag of potato chips at high altitude. This is the only time you will hear me tell you not to eat cruciferous vegetables, which are otherwise incredibly good for you."

Bring Fruits With Skins

One of the biggest mistakes people make when flying is loading up on packaged foods that are either naturally salted or salty from preservatives. But not everyone has the chance to chop up veggies and pack crudités in a Ziplock bag — so make it easy on yourself.

“Always go for fruits with skin,” Lisa Hayim of The Well Necessities, a nutrition website, told TPG. “Oranges are one of my favorite foods to travel with because they are hydrating, full of vitamin C, and come with [their] own ‘packaging’ to keep from getting dirty while traveling.”

Tangerines, apples and bananas are cheap and easy to carry in a personal bag, and can also help regulate digestion during your travels. Just be sure to eat any fresh fruits and vegetables before passing through customs.

Fruits with skins, like apples, are (Photo via Shutterstock)
You can find an apple almost anywhere in an airport to bring with you to eat on your flight. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Choose Menu Items With Protein

You may have every intention of packing a healthy snack to bring on the plane, but even the best intentions can fall apart during a hectic travel day. While you might not see your ideal meal options at 35,000 feet, team athlete Courtney Gardner suggested following one simple rule.

“If I run out of time pre-flight and can't bring snacks with me, I look for the items on the airline menu that [have] the highest amount of clean protein,” she said. “Sometimes that's a chicken salad or a protein pack. Whatever I choose, it's usually enough to hold me over until I can get a nutritious meal.”

Meal options will vary from airline to airline, but there’s likely a healthy protein choice such as eggs, yogurt, chicken breast or hummus. These ingredients might be available in wraps, sandwiches or salads, but they’ll always be healthier than a bag of chips or cookies.

Request Tonic and Lemon

Ever feel like your body is especially achy after a flight? Hawaiian Airlines flight attendant Heather Sanchez has a special fix.

“It’s amazing how quickly tonic water can help alleviate muscle cramping,” she said. “We generally have tonic water available in our beverage carts, plus lemon and lime wedges. Those are a great source of vitamin C and will help alkalize the body as well. Traveling can be taxing, and some extra vitamin C will certainly help bolster the immune system.”

Traveling by airplane. Passenger enjoying gin and tonic drink in economy class during flight. (Photo by Chalabala / Getty Images.)
(Photo by Chalabala / Getty Images)

Get a Magnesium and Coconut Boost

This might sound like a strange combo to travel with, but Sue Glasscock, the co-founder of The Ranch Malibu — a luxury fitness retreat — swears by magnesium and coconut flakes to help her stay healthy on the go.

“Take powdered magnesium to add to your water bottle,” she said. “This will help calm your nervous system, promote a more restful sleep and helps increase hydration."

"Plus, if you add coconut flakes to a trail mix or another snack, this will provide extra hydration, which is imperative for the dry atmosphere of planes. Your skin and body will thank you.”

Skip Salty Foods

While you might be focusing on drinking lots of water, you could be sabotaging yourself by consuming too much salt.

“Avoid all salty food,” said Hawaiian Airlines flight attendant Mapu Faulkner. “Instead, eat steamed veggies [and] fresh fruit. My absolute favorites are steamed Okinawan sweet potato and taro. They both have high antioxidant levels and tons of fiber.”

Sanchez added, “As much as possible I try to avoid anything that will add to the dehydration. Bloody Mary’s are a double whammy because of the alcohol and salt content. Although sometimes tempting, salty snacks such as pretzels and crackers are not helping the situation either. I try to opt for the most hydrating types of food and drinks while traveling in general.”

Dawn and Scott also recommend avoiding the nut mixes at the airport. “The nut mixes at the airport can be packed with sodium,” they said. “Instead, we like to make our own trail mix in pre-portioned bags with [a third of a cup of] unsalted almonds, unsweetened coconut shavings and cinnamon. Healthy fats like nuts are also great to keep you fuller longer.”

Make a Mini Meal

You’ll hear a lot of advice about packing your own snacks for flights. But if a snack or two just won't cut it, you can in fact bring an entire, healthy meal with you on the airplane.

“Put oatmeal plus your favorite toppings in a plastic bag (this also works with instant miso or onion soup) and ask for hot water and an empty cup to combine for a healthy snack,” said Sanchez. “And bring a small cooler of veggies and hummus. It’s a perfect meal.”

Carrots and hummus are super easy and healthy snacks to pack for a flight. (Photo via Shutterstock)
Carrots and hummus are super easy and healthy snacks to pack for a flight. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Take a Fast Day

If you’re not eager about eating what’s available on board, why not just skip the airplane food altogether? That’s what certified health coach and author of the forthcoming book “Clean Enough” Katzie Guy-Hamilton said. (She's also the the food and beverage director of Equinox Fitness.)

“I usually schedule myself to eat around an hour before getting on a flight and then fast while in the air,” she said.

“Fasting is a gift to your digestive system when traveling and helps you avoid airport food pitfalls. If you begin your fast before getting to the airport, always have a nourishing and simple meal that has protein, fat and fiber.”

Studies have revealed a number of benefits to intermittent fasting including weight loss and boosting the body’s resistance to stress. So instead of fretting over Biscoff cookies and Terra blue potato chips, use your short (or long-haul) flight to reset your digestive system.

Ask About Refrigeration

"If the flight is long and will take up the duration of more than one meal, consider calling the airline in advance and see if they will have room in one of the refrigerators where you can stash your own food," suggested Dr. Oz. "This will allow you a little more freedom to bring healthy options that [would] otherwise spoil if left in your carry-on bag."

Pack a Reusable Water Bottle

The experts have made it pretty clear that staying hydrated may be the single most important element to staying healthy while flying.

The problem is, it can be tricky to get enough water if you’re relying on the flight attendant’s beverage cart. That’s why Dawn and Scott always bring their own reusable water bottle.

“Flying can dehydrate you and your skin,” they said. “So, always pack a reusable water bottle. Fill it after you've gone through security, and sip throughout your flight." This also saves money since you’re not buying water at the airport, and is good for the planet, too.

One of our absolute favorite travel water bottles is from Vapur. Their reusable bottles are BPA-free, roll, fold and can be totally flattened when empty. Best of all, they're 90% lighter than your standard reusable water bottle, so you won't even notice the difference in your carry-on.