Tips on How to Eat Healthy when you Travel
Eating & Traveling; the basics
Your healthy eating habits should not suffer because you travel. You should always try to stick to a balanced diet.
A Balanced Diet
- A balanced diet includes a wide variety of food from each of the five food groups, and in the correct proportions: Fat, Protein, Carbs, Oils, and Fruit and Vegetables.
You should also try to balance your calorie intake with your energy expenditure:
An active trip with trekking, walking, climbing steps, or working out in the hotel's gym, burns more calories than simply sitting in a car 8 hours a day during a road trip, or sitting cramped in an airplane during a 4-hour flight.
So let's explore each type of trip and find out more about healthy travel diets:
Airplane food is bland and unhealthy
Food tastes different on an airplane; eating is an insipid experience that you put up with just because it distracts you from your uncomfortable inflight surroundings.
There are several reasons for this, and research by Rahne et al. (2018) (1) found that low atmospheric pressure, such as the kind experienced during a flight, coupled with loud background noise (think jet engines), impairs tasting and olfactory sensitivity.
Taste combines the sensation in your taste buds with the smell of food to create a pleasant tasting experience, but inflight cabin conditions conspire against it.
The parched air inside the cabin has only 15% relative humidity and is, therefore, drier than the driest desert on Earth, the Atacama Desert.
This extreme dryness causes your odor receptors to malfunction, so you smell less.
The low atmospheric pressure conditions decrease odor concentration because the "vapor" carrying the food's smell expands and dissipates before it reaches your smell receptors.
Lack of oxygen causes hypoxia that may alter your taste and smell receptors.
Rahne's team also noticed that the noise, similar to that of a commercial aircraft, "impaired sensitivity for sour and sweet but not for bitter or salty tastants." They also reported that "temperature, stress, or lighting might be more relevant than ambient noise for an altered perception of flavors."
Summing it up, food during a flight won't taste good.
Making inflight food palatable
To make matters worse, it is a daunting task to prepare tasty meals to be served 30,000 feet above sea level. The meals are cooked on the ground, packed, chilled, and stored at low temperatures.
The food is reheated on board. For safety reasons, microwaves and ovens with open flames can't be used in an airplane, so the meals are heated with convection ovens.
These ovens blow hot air around the racks of food trays for about 20 minutes.
As this process tends to dry-out the pre-cooked food extra sauce is added to it to keep it moist. The problem is that sauces contain salt.
Sugar and Salt
To counteract the taste reducing effects on flights, airlines make their food more salty and spicy than "ground-level" food. However, the so-called fifth taste, "umami" does not seem to be altered by inflight conditions, and that is why tomatoes, mushrooms, soy sauce, spinach, and shellfish taste the same in the air as they do on the ground.
Airlines choose pasta, a typical inflight meal, because it has tomato sauce, making it more palatable.
The downside of inflight meals
The extra seasoning increases your salt intake, and don't forget about the extra sugar in the desserts. This adds calories and unhealthy sodium to your diet.
The average airline meal contains more than 800mg of sodium, which is more than 40 percent of the daily limit of 2000mg set by the World Health Organization. The City University of New York (2020) (2)
Light plastic knives, forks and spoons, cheap plastic glasses and foam cups make food taste worse as proven by a study conducted by Spence and Harrar (2013) (3), who reported that "the properties of the cutlery can indeed affect people's taste perception of everyday foods."
So, what can you do to improve your inflight food?
Some proactive measures to eat better while you fly
1. Choose a healthy meal option when you book your flight
I am gluten intolerant (and suffer from coeliac disease), so I always book a "Gluten-Free Meal" (GFML), which is far better than a regular airline meal.
It always has fresh salad, grilled or boiled veggies, fruit salad, and yogurt for breakfast instead of scrambled eggs, croissants, or sugary buns.
Another option is a VLML meal (Ovo-Lacto vegetarian meal).
2. Carbs bloating and flatulence
The low cabin pressure during a flight causes the gas inside your body cavities to expand, this makes you feel bloated and is the leading cause of high altitude flatulence (or, in plain English, farting during a flight).
Airline foods tend to be low in fiber and high in carbohydrates because carbs calm your digestion and reduce bloating and gas generation.
But more carbs means more calories, especially if these are simple carbohydrates like sugar. Lower fiber means slower intestinal transit and less cholesterol absorption in your bowel.
Discomfort, such as bloating is common on flights. It is caused by the maldigestion and malabsorption of carbohydrates in the digestive system.
The unabsorbed carbs serve as food for the microbes living in your colon that ferment it into gas.
But not all carbs have the same effect: only 1% of white rice is malabsorbed, compared to around 10% in wheat, potatoes, or corn (4).
The fiber in the food may also hinder the movement of gas through the digestive tract. It can promote gas retention and make you feel bloated. Replacing protein with carbohydrates can help alleviate bloating. (5).
Not all carbohydrates and fiber are the same
Not all fiber is the same. Studies involving the role of food in Irritable Bowel Syndrome symptoms (among which are bloating, pain and flatulence) (6) found that fibers should be classified by their "fermentability" and viscosity, and those that are tacky and ferment quickly (generating gases) should be avoided.
Foods with certain types of carbs, known as FODMAP (which stands for Fermentable Oligo-, Di-, Mono-saccharides and, Polyols), should also be avoided because these carbs cause digestive issues. Following a diet with low FODMAP reduces gastrointestinal symptoms, and lessens bloating and flatulence (6).
What to eat and what to avoid during a flight? See the following table for some tips.
Wheat dextrin and Inulin (widely used to add fiber in processed foods), legumes, and beans.
Wheat bran, Corn bran, whole grains, brown rice, nuts, seeds, vegetables, dark green leafy, corn, fruits with skins, grapes, pears, apples.
High FODMAP foods
Low FODMAP foods
Wheat: in bread, pasta, breakfast cereals, biscuits, and pastries. Baked beans, chickpeas, lentils, soybeans, peas. Sugars such as high-fructose corn syrup, honey, cream cheese, cottage cheese.
Bell peppers, carrots, cucumber, eggplant, lettuce, squash, tomato, zucchini. Banana, blueberry, cantaloupe, orange, pineapple, Lactose-free dairy products, hard cheese, meats, fish, chicken, eggs, tofu, Gluten-free bread and pasta, Jelly, marmalade, butter, nut butter, mayonnaise, olives
Stick to insoluble fibers and low FODMAP foods
Cut back on simple carbs, sugars, and processed foods.
3. Eat to sync your body clock
Long flights crossing several time zones (such as a US coast to coast flight) upset your body's internal clock.
You can help resynchronize its circadian rhythm by eating the right food (7).
- Take a high-carbohydrate, low-protein meal in the evening to promote drowsiness and sleep better.
- Take a high-protein, low-carbohydrate meal in the morning, to stay awake and alert.
4. Carry Wholesome snacks with you
When I travel, I always carry some Gluten-Free cereal & nut bars, seeds, raisins, prunes, and fresh fruit (usually apples or bananas -for their potassium content).
You can also take some salad, hard-boiled eggs, chopped veggies, cheese, and rice crackers as a low calorie, low carb snack.
We will look into the benefits of a wholesome snack below.
Be careful with what you bring with you!
If you are going to an overseas destination, or coming to the US from abroad -or going to Hawaii, remember to check out what food you can bring into the country.
The USDA's website: www.aphis.usda.gov has a clear list of what you can and can't bring with you.
In case of doubt declare it. Introducing seeds, fruit, beef, etc., into a country can mean stiff fines.
I declared my Gluten-Free seeds and dehydrated apples and strawberries when I reached the sanitary barrier at the airport in Auckland, New Zealand. And luckily I did! the strawberries were confiscated and destroyed, despite being freeze-dried. The reason: the tiny seeds on the fruit was deemed a risk.
TSA's rules regarding carry-on food
For domestic and international flights, the TSA rules apply: you can carry 3.4 ounces or less (100 ml) of liquid or gel-like food and place it in a clear plastic zip-lock.
The TSA website lists the following food as liquid⁄gel: nut butter, jam, jelly, yogurt, creamy cheese, soups, etc.
5. Keep hydrated: drink plenty of water
Dry inflight conditions make you lose water rapidly, you should drink plenty of water: 1 glass per hour of flight time. Avoid carbonated beverages because the gas will expand and bloat you.
Contrary to popular belief, drinking coffee or tea will not cause excessive fluid loss or upset hydration (read more: Water, coffee, or tea?).
Skip the alcohol
Try to keep away from alcohol, it has a diuretic effect and will dehydrate you.
Inflight air has less oxygen than you normally have at sea level: it is equivalent to an altitude of around 6,600 feet (2.200 m), and this hypoxic environment does not mix well with booze.
A study conducted by McFarland and Barach in 1936 (8) concluded that two or three drinks at an altitude of 10,000 to 12,000 feet packed the punch of 4 or 5 cocktails.
So keep calm and healthy, sipping water instead of a glass of wine.
Now let's look at what to eat during the rest of your trip.
Travel eating in general
Once you've reached your destination, you should follow your balanced diet, keep hydrated, and follow these simple common-sense tips:
Stick to your regular meal times. After you have switched to a new time zone, keep your usual eating schedule, this will help your body maintain its normal hormonal output and digestive cycle.
Don't skip meals during travel. Although travel means different routines, you should always eat your breakfast and eat every four to five hours.
If you go hungry for too long, you might end up bingeing or eating unhealthy food.
Plan an early dinner and adjust your evening accordingly. It will let you unwind.
2. Eating in moderation
Treat yourself to local foods, but don't overdo it.
Unwind at the end of the day with a glass or two -not more- of wine and share a tasty dessert with your travel partner.
My coeliac disease means that I can't eat pasta, pizza, or burgers with French fries, so fast food isn't an option -unless a gluten-free alternative is available. But I always manage to find a good meal when I travel: steak, fish, chicken, salad, baked potato, salads, grilled vegetables, rice, quinoa. They are all good options.
Below is a photo of a very healthy and Gluten-Free meal I ate in Moab, Utah, on a road trip:
3. Carry a snack with you
I usually visit the local supermarket and pick up some healthy lunchtime snacks to eat on the go: gluten-free rice crackers, cherry tomatoes, and parmesan cheese provide fiber, protein, healthy fat, and good carbs.
Nuts, fresh fruit, or a cereal bar are all good options to carry with you in your backpack.
My wife and I always pack non-dairy creamer (she is lactose intolerant and you don't always find Coffee-Mate when you travel abroad), and instant coffee, you can always prepare a decent cup of coffee anywhere you find hot water. We also take some instant soup with us.
Dikariyanto et al. (2020) (9) reported that eating tree nut snacks (TNS) was associated with a "higher intake of fiber, vitamin A, thiamin, folate, vitamin C, vitamin E, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, selenium and iron; and lower intake of saturated fatty acids, trans fatty acids, total carbohydrate, starch, free sugar, sodium and chloride."
They also had lower cardiovascular disease risk.
4. Breakfast is "The" main meal of the day
A nutritious breakfast is fundamental. It gives your body the necessary energy to get you through the day and also all the vitamins and nutrients your body needs.
A study (Fayet-Moore, McConnell, Tuck, and Petocz, 2017) (10) involving 12,153 subjects found that those who ate breakfast ingested healthier food than those who skipped it.
Breakfast skippers had higher intakes of saturated fatty acids and lower intakes of dietary fiber and most micronutrients.
Among breakfast consumers, those consuming breakfast cereals had higher intakes of total sugars but not of either free and added sugars and also had higher intakes of dietary fiber.
They had lower intakes of total fat and sodium. Generally, they had higher intakes of most micronutrients. Fayet-Moore, McConnell, Tuck, and Petocz (2017) (10)
Eggs, yogurt, oatmeal, muesli, or cornflakes are good options -try to avoid the waffles and whipped cream and you will be fine.
5. Find a nice restaurant
If you have a schedule, you will know your destination and where you will spend your nights. So you can do some research on the Internet and find restaurants close to your hotel, apartment, or lodging place.
Check their menus and find out what dishes they offer, ethnic, vegan, local cuisine, Italian, etc.
Eating a healthy and balanced diet when you travel will keep you fit, healthy, and energetic.
Plan if you have food allergies or medical conditions to make sure you will find the food that you need. Request the correct airline meal when you book your flight and carry some healthy snacks with you when you travel.
Keep hydrated, eat in moderation, and don't skip your meals are some things that you can do to eat healthy on your trips.
References and Further Reading
(1) Torsten Rahne et al., (2018). Does ambient noise or hypobaric atmosphere influence olfactory and gustatory function?. January 25, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0190837
(2) The City University of New York, (2019) Airline food study 2019-20, 29.Nov.2019. Accessed 30.Dec.2020.
(3) Vanessa Harrar, Charles Spence, (2013). The taste of cutlery: how the taste of food is affected by the weight, size, shape, and colour of the cutlery used to eat it. C. Flavour (2013) 2: 21. https://doi.org/10.1186/2044-7248-2-21
(4) Hasler WL., (2006). Gas and Bloating. Gastroenterol Hepatol (N Y). 2006;2(9):654-662.
(5) Zhang, M., Juraschek, S. P., Appel, L. J., Pasricha, P. J., Miller, E. R., 3rd, and Mueller, N. T. (2020). Effects of High-Fiber Diets and Macronutrient Substitution on Bloating: Findings From the OmniHeart Trial. Clinical and translational gastroenterology, 11(1), e00122. https://doi.org/10.14309/ctg.0000000000000122
(6) Capili B, Anastasi JK, Chang M, (2016). Addressing the Role of Food in Irritable Bowel Syndrome Symptom Management, J Nurse Pract. 2016;12(5):324-329. doi:10.1016/j.nurpra.2015.12.007
(7) Huyghe T, Scanlan AT, Dalbo VJ, Calleja-Gonzalez J, (2018). The Negative Influence of Air Travel on Health and Performance in the National Basketball Association: A Narrative Review. Sports (Basel). 2018;6(3):89. Published 2018 Aug 30. doi:10.3390/sports6030089
(8) McFarland RA, Barach AL, (1936). The relationship between alcohol Intoxication and anoxemla. American J. Med. Science 1936;192(2):186-98. cited here
(9) Dikariyanto V, Berry SE, Pot GK, Francis L, Smith L, Hall WL. (2020). Tree nut snack consumption is associated with better diet quality and CVD risk in the UK adult population: National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) 2008-2014. Public Health Nutr. 2020 Dec;23(17):3160-3169. doi: 10.1017/S1368980019003914. Epub 2020 Feb 28. PMID: 32106903.
(10) Fayet-Moore F, McConnell A, Tuck K, Petocz P, (2017). Breakfast and Breakfast Cereal Choice and Its Impact on Nutrient and Sugar Intakes and Anthropometric Measures among a Nationally Representative Sample of Australian Children and Adolescents. Nutrients. 2017 Sep 21; 9(10)
About this Article
How to eat healthy during travel, A. Whittall
©2018 Fit-and-Well.com, 30.May.2019. Updated. 39.Dec.2020. https://www.fit-and-well.com/diet-food/how-to-eat-healthy-during-travel.html
Tags: healthy eating plan, plan your healthy diet, advice to eat healthy on vacations, best travel diet tips, best diet tips and tricks, eating healthy while traveling, healthy holiday tips, holiday diet tips, how to eat healthy while traveling, healthy eating.
Subject: Fit-and-Well.com. How to eat healthy when you travel. Simple common sense tips & advice on how to eat a healthy and balanced diet when traveling. Avoid bland airline inflight food, eat in moderation, keep hydrated, skip the junk food, eat breakfast, and many more tips.