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10 food intake tips for healthy flying

“Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai que tu es.” In the nineteenth century, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin coined this phrase in his treatise on physiology. It roughly means, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach in rather less poetic terms stated, “Der Mensch ist, was er isst,” which means "man is what he eats." And in recent times on my beloved BBC, Gillian McKeith hosted a TV program entitled You are what you eat: Gillian moves in. Doctors and commentators have been saying the same thing for centuries. And now me. 

I became involved in starting the Fly Well concept for AOPA because as pilots we need to stay healthy in order to fly. Given that you are what you eat, this deserves some attention. Imagine a Big Mac, a Big Gulp, and the resulting big impact. If you have neither seen the movie or read the book Supersize me, I heartily encourage you to do so, because it may change the way you think about food, and your heart.

1. The link between how much we eat and our lifespan—and health span—is irrefutable. As Americans we eat way too much and this reduces our time on the earth and our time in the sky. So, cut down your daily caloric intake. 

2. We are driven to eat to satiate hunger and to garner the satisfaction of taste, with a focus on saltiness, sweetness, and “mouth feel,” or “umami” the fifth taste, a feeling of smoothness. Given that these three are also stimulated by French fries (salt, sweetness, and the umami provided by fat), chocolate (sweet and umami), and other foods that you know are not good for you in any significant amount, applying self-control becomes critical, because we are genetically programmed to eat bad stuff! 

3. Some good umami? Try fish that provides Omega 3 fatty acids. We know that these are conducive to good heart health and the feel of a nice piece of grilled or broiled salmon is nice to the tongue. Yes, you can get this substance from food supplements but it is pricier, and it does not taste as good.

4. Be rough on yourself—eat more roughage. Start the day with a cereal. I tend to favor granola that I buy in bulk, and the bulk it provides to my intake reduces hunger and therefore caloric consumption. It gets the colon doing what it does best! I enjoy doctoring up my own granola when I am able—I buy rolled oats (sugar and salt free), various nuts (flaked almonds, cashews, pecans), raisins, dried cherries and blueberries, shredded coconut, toasted sesame and pumpkin seeds, a couple of tablespoons of maple syrup, and a smattering of cinnamon. This fab mixture with some unsweetened almond or coconut milk is a cracking good start to the day. 

5. Fruit and vegetables. Yes, we all know about the food pyramid, but if you are going to build a pyramid (quite an undertaking), you have to start at the bottom. Mix it up; for a mid-morning snack, a banana and some almonds will provide energy, protein, and minerals. For lunch, some celery sticks, carrots, and apple slices with peanut butter is delicious and filling, and you will not get that postprandial lull after eating a burger and fries. Nor will you get the resulting unpleasant flatulence and foul bowel motions that are a sequel to a high-fat meal: if not nice for you, imagine what it is like for passengers in your airplane! And as for the peanut butter, try either making your own (very easy, plain roasted peanuts and a food blender, maybe a small sprinkle of salt and a drop or two of peanut oil) or go to a store that lets you grind up their peanuts. Beats buying an expensive jar that is full of substances that belong in a chemistry lab. 

6. Fluids. I cannot say this often enough: You need to drink more, and water is the way to go. From a faucet, preferably, unless there are purity issues in your area. Insufficient fluid intake has all sorts of implications from kidney stones (which you do not want to experience, trust me) to impacting hunger. 

7. Carbs. As pilots we learn about problems with our carburetor, such as icing. In food science, there has been a lot of focus on different diets and carbohydrate consumption. I am not a big believer in fad diets, just rational eating. For instance, going out to a restaurant ought to be a treat. You are going to savor some wonderful flavors and combinations, but what is the first thing they bring you? Bread! To borrow from the anti-drug movement, just say no! Similarly, when ordering a sandwich, I remove half the bread—it is the yummy stuff inside one really wants, the bread is often just the delivery mechanism, unless it is fabulously crafted dough! 

8. Nature or nurture? I am a big believer in natural. The loaf of bread that is stale within a day or so has been made with care to be enjoyed fresh. The loaf that remains “edible” for two weeks scares the living daylights out of me! I do not like seeing a list of polysyllabic words on the ingredients list. On the whole, avoid packaged foods. OK, I am a European and some of my habits are antithetical to Americans (although I am now an American!), but hear me out: Back where I come from, it was our practice to buy food on the day, or at most the day ahead, of when we would eat it. This meant we made choices based on what we fancied at that time and expended energy to go shopping and peruse choices. It makes planning, shopping for, and preparing a meal exciting. American refrigerators are bigger and can store more food, so the food has to last longer, so more chemicals are added. Try my suggestion and see if it works for you. 

9. Will you have that fried or baked? It matters how food is prepared. The science of preparation is now quite advanced, and we know, for instance, that many nutrients can be destroyed or minimized by certain preparation methods, hence the rise of the raw food movement. One does not have to be so radical though; simple changes can have profound effects. For example, slow roasting root vegetables simply brushed with a little olive oil causes the skins to caramelize and become sweet and this is so much healthier than frying. Try taking a sweet potato or beetroot double wrapped in foil and throw that on the barbecue—you may never have a regular potato again, and you will need no butter or sour cream as the natural umami of the yam will titillate your taste buds. 

10. And what not to eat? Well, I have hinted at some above, but here are a couple of others. I am not a fan of sodas and feel they should be kept a million miles away from airplanes—one is drinking gas which has to find a way out somehow and as one ascends the captured gas in your bowel expands and can cause intense abdominal pain. Caffeine is a no-no; it is a diuretic and makes you want to pee as well as causing “twitchiness.” I know some people debate this, but I will not be swayed!  

So, give your food intake careful thought. If you think of yourself as what you eat, are you imagining a day-old brown-and-gray cheeseburger and grease-sodden fries, or a crisp, brightly colored salad? I know what I want to be!

Jonathan Sackier

Dr. Jonathan Sackier is an expert in aviation medical concerns and helps members with their needs through AOPA Pilot Protection Services.

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