The best plane food to eat to feel better on long flights

Spending 20 hours or so up in the sky isn’t the only unnatural thing about long-haul flights. We’re awake and eating when we should be sleeping; we barely move, and we’re in an environment conducive to bloating and dehydration. No wonder we’re rubbish by journey’s end.

But good hydration, better food and not overeating can boost the chances of feeling better when you arrive, says Melissa Adamski, a dietitian specialising in travel health from Nutted Out Nutrition in Melbourne.

Some foods on planes are best avoided if you want to feel better when you land.Credit:iStock

That includes skipping the highly processed snack foods that are increasingly common on some long-distance flights.

“In recent years, and especially since Covid, many airlines have cut costs and it’s often reflected in the food – what used to be a small tray with a snack based on real food has morphed into something ultra-processed in a packet or cardboard box,” she says.

“These snacks like crisps, crackers, cake and hot pastries are based on very refined carbs with few nutrients so there’s little benefit. Before you eat, ask yourself, ‘am I hungry or just bored? Or am I eating it because it’s free and included in my ticket?’”

If you’re starving and want to skip highly processed snacks, it’s good to have back up in your hand luggage like unsalted nuts, fresh fruit and raw vegie sticks, says Adamski – but dispose of it before you land.

“With main meals, you’re constrained with choices but if fish is an option, I’d choose that, especially if it’s oily fish. Make the most of any vegetables and fruit on the meal tray, but don’t assume that pre-ordering a vegetarian meal guarantees significantly more veg – you can also end up with a lot of pasta and rice,” says Adamski, recalling a vegetarian pasta with just a quarter of a cup of vegetables.

“But it can depend on the airline. Some have four or five vegetarian meal classifications among the special meal options and that can help you choose meals with more vegetables.”

Be well hydrated before you board, then aim for about 100 to 300 mls of water every hours.

“The low humidity and low oxygen levels in the cabin promote dehydration, although this can depend on the aircraft – the cabin of the Dreamliner is more humid, for instance. But avoid fizzy drinks. They can contribute to bloating, already a risk on long-distance flights because of changing air pressure in the cabin,” she explains.

“This is more likely if you’re already prone to bloating because of IBS, for example, so you might also be better off avoiding too many high fibre foods during the flight.

“Caffeine can have diuretic effects but it may not be as dehydrating as we think, especially if you’re used to it so a cup or two of coffee isn’t necessarily a bad thing – unless you want to sleep.”

As for alcohol, go easy or avoid it altogether is her advice. “It might send you to sleep faster but that doesn’t guarantee restorative sleep. Alcohol can disrupt sleep.”

There’s now good evidence that what and when we eat on long-haul flights can help improve sleep and reduce jet lag symptoms, says Professor Stephen Simpson, Academic Director of the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre.

“The type of food we eat can influence our brain’s production of melatonin, the sleep hormone that makes us drowsy. Melatonin is made from the brain chemical serotonin, and serotonin, in turn, is made from an amino acid called tryptophan found in food. Dairy products, eggs, nuts, seeds, oily fish and poultry are good sources.

“Carbohydrate-rich foods like pasta, potatoes and rice help too – these provide glucose that helps tryptophan cross from the blood to the brain,” explains Simpson, whose research in partnership with Qantas is finding ways to improve sleep and reduce jet lag for passengers on long flights.

Optimising menus and meal timing is part of this research, and a study on board the first non-stop 17-hour Qantas flight from Perth to London in 2018 found that meals based on ingredients to promote sleep and hydration, plus careful timing of both meals and lighting, helped improve jet lag, he says.

Like exposure to light and dark, meal timing helps reset our body clock – although it’s not so much a leap forward or back to our destination time zone as a nudge in the right direction.

His team’s research is now working on guidelines to help long-haul passengers between Sydney and London, and Sydney and New York manage jet lag better. Meanwhile, he has one tip we can put into practice now.

“If you’re flying to the UK start rehearsing the time shift a few days before you leave by going to bed an hour later than usual and getting up an hour later. That way you’ll have already shifted a bit towards the time of your destination.”

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