Does flying wreak havoc on your hunger levels? From what to eat before you board to the best in-flight options and what to do when you land, here’s how to keep your eating habits on track

Any products in this article have been selected editorially however if you buy something we mention, we may earn commission

Does flying cause your eating habits to run into a spot of turbulence? If so, you’re not alone. A sugar or starch-fuelled trip to duty-free before boarding (never mind that limited in-flight menu) is always the easiest, but not necessarily healthiest route to dealing with hunger pangs when catching a flight.

With flying causing us to eat too much or too little, leaving us feeling bloated and knackered, we often accept that rubbish post-flight feeling as an unavoidable inevitability. However, there are things we can do to help make the bump back to reality a lot easier to manage. What we eat before, during and after a flight can all make a significant difference to how we feel when we land.

Why does flying affect our eating habits?

There are three key reasons. The first is the stress the body is put under when sent skyward, explains Sarah Anderson aka The Aviation Nutritionist , with our digestive system often bearing the brunt of the upheaval of being airborne. However, stressors can also come via a range of other sources - the boarding dash, the last minute purchases, the shoulda, coulda, woulda packeds, fear of flying and a variety of other pre-plane panics too.

“When stressed, the ‘fight’ side of our fight or flight mode kicks in and the systems that ‘shut down’ are the ones that aren’t usually prioritised,” Sarah explains. “We go into what’s called a sympathetic state (SNS) instead of the parasympathetic (PNS) - the PNS is what the body needs to rest and digest effectively.

“It has an effect on our hormones,” explains Sarah. “Stressors make levels of leptin (which buffers our hunger) go AWOL and as a result, we find ourselves unable to stop eating when we are full so easily.” Throw into the mix being seated for long stretches of time, boredom and eating highly salted, nutritionally sparse meals, and you have a recipe certain to wreak havoc with our appetites.

Another factor to explain why we tend to seek high sugar and salt foods is the effect flying has on our sense of taste. Research has shown that too hot or cold temperatures, grey cabin lighting, high stress levels and even what you are listening to on the in-flight entertainment all dull people’s tastes of different foods (studies have found classical music has the most positive effect on our food choices, Sarah highlights). Furthermore, our sense of smell is also impacted, to provide a double whammy of sensory underwhelm when it comes to how we perceive flavour in a pressurised cabin.

In fact, this was the impetus behind Heston Blumenthal’s exploration of the use of umami in in-flight meals to help combat the bitterness found in foods at high altitudes. “You can’t load more salt, but you can definitely up the umami,” he said on his Channel 4 show, Heston’s Mission Impossible. The same extends to how we taste alcohol too. “The altitude even affects robust wines,” explains Sarah. “We work at The Aviation Nutritionist with caterers to get creative with food development and consider natural flavours at altitude. In our menu with in-flight caterers Absolute Taste , nutritious seaweed is used as a very effective seasoning. Offering a full menu which is gluten, wheat and dairy-free also helps relieve some of the stress on an already compromised digestive system at altitude. This is on private aviation at the moment however, hopefully it will be available on commercial flying in the near future.”

The third reason for our wayward hunger levels is dehydration, which is increased by being at higher altitudes. “Being dehydrated has a huge impact on our perception of hunger,” says Sarah. “And, often when we think we’re hungry, we’re most likely thirsty,” she adds. This can often cause us to overeat as a result due to the especially drying conditions.

What to eat before, during and after flying

Before flying…

In between packing, wrapping up work deadlines and pre-beach plucking, prepping and preening, making plans from a food perspective is usually the farthest thing from most of our minds. However, a few easy yet effective changes during the week before you travel can make a world of difference. “It’s about investing in your wellbeing before you start your travels,” says Sarah. “Don’t save it for when you get there - get in that mode earlier if you can.”

1. Bank as much sleep as possible

First up, try and get as much sleep as you can before you depart. “I recommend to my clients who are sports and business professionals that they bank as much sleep as possible beforehand,” says Sarah. “They often need to be on it when they land and if they turn up wired due to not having slept for a few days, they’ll never catch up.”

2. Up your antioxidants

Secondly, up your antioxidants to increase your immunity and reduce your susceptibility to getting sick and run-down. “Eat more colourful and antioxidant-rich foods as well as a variety of nutrients across the board,” recommends Sarah. “Power juices, smoothies and power salads featuring good quality protein are great, especially in the summer. Foods such as sauerkraut and beetroot are also particularly good. Sauerkraut is full of natural probiotics to feed your gut bacteria and for getting yourself ready to fight microbes in unique environments when travelling. Beetroot supports the circulatory system as it is rich in nitric oxide, a vasodilator (which keeps oxygen flowing around the body). Antibacterial herb blends such as za’atar are also valuable in giving your immune system a fighting chance, as well as garlic and ginger too.”

MORE GLOSS: How to boost your gut health on a budget

When in the air…

1. Upgrade your water

While water by itself is important, there are ways to make it do more for you to ensure you get as much hydration out of it as possible. “Try sugar-free hydration drinks that have electrolytes in them as they help the water to be better absorbed by the body,” advises Sarah. “I’d recommend 1Above  in particular as it contains pine bark, an ingredient that may help reduce jet lag and additional travel associated conditions including colds, DVT/edema and circulation concerns.”

2. Never board a plane hungry

“Never get on a flight hungry as it will increase the likelihood that you’ll make AWOL food choices,” says Sarah. “Timing is key. If the flight is short enough, aim to have a nutrient dense meal beforehand, at home ideally. Or try to allow enough time to fit one in while at the airport, many of which are starting to cater for the more health-conscious. It’s more about counting nutrients than counting calories,” she explains. “We’re trying at The Aviation Nutritionist to work closely with suppliers to up the quality of places to eat in airports. Leon is a favourite of mine and there’s now one in Gatwick airport which is really encouraging.”

3. Do your research... terms of seeing what your particular carrier offers food and drink-wise before you get to the airport. “Investigate what your airline might have available ahead of time and make the most of the special meals on offer - they’re not necessarily just for people who are say, coeliac or gluten intolerant,” says Sarah.“It also makes it clear to the airline that they need to up their game too if they don’t have a good selection. Asian vegetarian, gluten-free, and fruit platter meals are the best to opt for in my opinion." They're not all created equal though.

"The Asian vegetarian option is usually flavoured with nutritious herbs and spices, but the gluten-free options still need a lot of work in my opinion as suppliers are still offering unedible gluten-free bread choices," Sarah comments. "However, the hot protein option is usually kept simple and the fruit platters are good if you want to keep it light. It’s important to really understand your individual nutritional requirements though and cater to them accordingly. One size doesn’t fit all.” The main takeaway? Keep it light and as nutrient-dense as possible, taking a bag of tricks with you too. Which brings us onto our next point...

4. Bring snacks with you

But not just any snacks. “Take things to stimulate and engage your system when you’re eating them so that you don’t overeat,” says Sarah. “Eat foods that don’t cause your blood sugar levels to spike - think lean and good quality protein such as unsalted nuts, olives and easily digestible cheese, for example Manchego. You can also often find good chilled protein snacks including chicken, turkey, boiled eggs and edamame beans in the airport at Pret and M&S.”

5. Avoid fizzy drinks

“Their acidity lowers immunity and the sugar in them helps breed bad bacteria in the gut which in turn makes you more susceptible to getting sick,” explains Sarah. The same extends to quick fix, non-filling processed foods that offer minimal nutritional benefits.

However, don’t worry about being too meticulous - you are on holiday after all! “Try to eat as naturally as possible, but it’s also about being a realist too,” says Sarah highlighting ‘food combining’ as a good way for ensuring you have your fill of fun and good food. “If you have a drink, just make sure to have some olives or nuts with it to stop your blood sugar spiking.”

When you’ve landed…

1. Book in a food delivery

Our eating habits can fall dramatically out of sync when we land due to a multitude of reasons - most notably, the effect that jet lag and being in a new environment has on our hormone levels. “The pineal gland gets very confused which therefore affects the amount of melatonin it produces (the hormone that controls our sleep cycles),” Sarah explains. “We also produce much more of the ‘hunger hormone,’ ghrelin. The result is that we end up not knowing when to eat and we lose the ability to understand when we’re hungry.”

One way to best prepare for such eventualities? Book in an Ocado delivery to arrive the day you get back either before you set off or while you’re away, recommends Sarah. “Often when we get home, there’s nothing in the cupboard to eat, so ordering a delivery helps ensure that some kind of nutritious food will be there when you get back, as well as helping you feel less stressed about the whole coming home experience.”

2. Opt for mood-boosting foods

“Again, it’s all about antioxidants,” says Sarah, “Plus foods rich in tryptophan to help boost serotonin levels and balance the mood cycle, such as avocados, almonds and turkey. This also helps to balance melatonin levels and reinstate your pre-flight sleeping state too.”

3. Up your magnesium levels

Magnesium deficiency reportedly affects around 70% of the population , but levels are even more depleted after times of stress such as after a flight, highlights Sarah. However, you can replenish supplies from both culinary and skincare perspectives. “Try having a Himalayan salt, Epsom salt and coconut oil bath to help aid dehydration and relax the nervous system,” recommends Sarah. Dark green leafy vegetables, (in green smoothie form works a treat), nuts, seeds and wholemeal rice are also valuable sources food-wise. Sarah also recommends kelp. “It’s rich in umami flavours - try seasoning your food with it - and it is also effective in helping support the thyroid too, which becomes challenged due to the stress caused by being at altitude.”

4. Boost your B vitamins

Also depleted during times of stress, supplementing your stores when you hit the tarmac could be helpful in speeding up recovery. "I recommend high potency B vitamin drops available at The Natural Dispensary by Premier Research ,” says Sarah for an easy yet effective way to upgrade your water.

5. Add turmeric

“Cooking with turmeric can be especially beneficial for tackling the inflammation caused to the body by being at altitude,” explains Sarah. An antioxidant as well as an anti-inflammatory, 'super spice' turmeric has long been touted for its health benefits . Not only is it reported to help support the liver, but its active compounds called curcuminoids have been found to be beneficial in cases of arthritis and high cholesterol too.

Disclaimer: Certain supplements are used for different reasons and a one-size-fits-all approach shouldn’t be adopted. In addition, pregnant women and anyone on medication should always consult a doctor before embarking on a supplements programme.

Follow Sarah on Twitter  @NutriAviation