TL;DR: you shouldn't have to eat to fuel four hours on an airplane.
When I’m working with clients, they come to me with every possible question and scenario and, without judgement, I meet them there.
One query that has come up is: “Help! I’m travelling. How should I eat?!”
There are many possible travel scenarios. The road trip. The work conference. The overseas sojourn. The indulgent and celebratory vacation.
My fingers are too tired to type a blog post about every possible travel scenario, so I’m going to hone in on one in particular that I think is a really good opportunity to learn: the four-hour intercontinental flight. (I chip away at a few of those other ones, below, though, too...)
I picked four hours more for less out of thin air (air travel pun!). Four hours is, first of all, about as long as I personally can spend on a flight without wanting to inflict harm on my fellow passengers. Why did you take your shoes off?! Why aren’t you wearing headphones to watch that movie on your iPad?! Quit kicking my seat… aaaaaauuuhhhhggggh!
“Hell is other people.” - whoever said that.
Anyhoo. Four hours is pretty average. When you’re flying to visit relatives or go on a work trip or a girls weekend getaway, it’s probably about that long. LA to Toronto. Calgary to Houston. Chicago to LA. It averages out.
There is no reason why you should need to specifically fuel for a four-hour flight.
A day with a four-hour flight in it is potentially a pretty sedentary day. It’s at least four hours of sitting still on the airplane, not even factoring in driving to the airport, standing endlessly in security, waiting at the gate, waiting for your baggage. In truth, a four hour flight can amount of upward of 6 or 7 hours of sedentary or very-low-activity time.
Why worry about specifically fuelling that? Would you worry about fuelling a 5-hour Netflix binge? Would you stress about running out of energy during a 7-hour night of sleeping?
If you really can’t go for four hours without experiencing urgent hunger; if you really think you need to prepare yourself, nutritionally, to sit still and do nothing for a long while, then you might have a metabolism that needs a little TLC, and you might want to get some assistance recognizing true hunger and what it means. This is my favourite thing to teach people.
Hunger that feels like an emergency after just four hours of sitting motionless is not normal. “Hangry” is not cute or funny. It’s a telltale sign that your body is confused as to how to fuel itself during a very brief period of food scarcity. Four little hours. A blip on the food scarcity radar, evolutionarily speaking.
Consider our ancestry. We have experienced much longer famines than four hours. Our bodies have elegant systems built in to extract the fuel on and in us, so that we can bravely survive many food scarcity situations, such as a redeye flight from Vancouver to Halifax.
As I’m writing this, I’m on a three-hour flight to LA.
I had a workout this morning, then ate a meal of meat and vegetables at 1pm. It was about 750 calories (straight-up guesstimate since I don't count my food; I'm a good guesser though - thanks three decades of food obsession!). Then I went for a walk with my cute dog because he's the best and I'll miss him so much.
According to my Oura Ring data, I took 16,000 steps before I began my trip to California. That’s actually a lot. That is more active than most people are during a weekday, I’d say. Just for context.
Then it was time to high-tail it to the airport. I left at 2pm and spent over an hour in stupid bumper-to-bumper traffic and was nearly late.
I stood in the security line for 45 minutes. Honestly. my Nexus application can’t be approved soon enough. I got on this flight at 5:30pm and when I buckled Into my seat, I was still well satiated by my meal from 1pm. I didn’t bother to get any airport snacks or buy food on the plane. Although that is a ritual that some folks find hard to break...
My flight is set to land in LA at about 7:30pm local time. As the clock struck about 6pm, I felt a slight, mild sensation of hunger, Not unusual: I had an active day and only ate one meal. However, seeing as I’m trapped on an airplane, and seeing as my hunger is not even remotely urgent, I’m totally fine to just kind of sit with it and let it happen. I’ll see if I can seek out a nice dinner at LAX maybe. By then, it will be about 8 hours since I ate that first meal. I’ll walk around the terminal looking for a nice restaurant that has a good steak or an awesome salad on the menu. I’ll tuck into a nice whole foods meal plus perhaps a $14 glass of airport wine, and then board my final flight for the last hour of my trip to San Diego.
I’ll get to my hotel at around 11pm, and will go immediately to bed.
This is literally no different than the feeding schedule/paradigm I’d have followed if I had been at home tonight.
I’d have still broken fast at 1pm. I’d have probably eaten a lighter second meal 6 or 7 hours later. A glass of wine. Then off to bed.
You should be able to treat a pretty ordinary travel day like you’d treat a pretty ordinary day at home. You shouldn’t need to eat any differently.
For some people the thought of being “trapped” in an airplane without food for four hours is a big "oh hell no." For those people, I'd suggest a little bit of metabolic TLC. Badass human animals should be able to handle four sedentary, foodless hours, no problem.
Those long flights that span several different time zones have different rules; but only slightly. I think about when I flew to Tokyo. My 12-hour overnight flight happened when I would normally be sleeping. I don’t feel the need to eat when I’m asleep, so I didn't eat at all during that flight. I ate when I arrived in Japan because it was breakfast time. Well, actually it was more like 2 in the afternoon, but according to my internal clock, it was time to break the fast! Just another fun reason to tap into your body's natural hunger cues rather than eating with the clock. The time zones can play with us, mentally, but if you’ve become attuned to recognizing and trusting hunger and then answering it, those when-to-eat rules are incredibly easy to figure out no matter which far-flung corner of the globe you’re exploring.
Work trips with lots of lunch and dinner outings, plus stupid catered meetings.
A real fuckin’ minefield.
Big important meetings always seem to be supported by a soul-sucking “lunch” of sandwiches, sodas, and cookies. Whyyyyyyy. Do they want us to fall asleep at the board room table? Is it some version of corporate Hunger Games where only those who remain awake at 3pm get to keep their jobs?! Do they want these expensive, elaborate meetings to be wholly unproductive as our poor brains navigate the inevitable blood sugar crash, aka “Afternoon Diabetes?!”
And then the dinners with the bosses with the expense accounts trying to impress the clients/vendors with the free-flowing drinks.
Your best scenario here is to OWN BREAKFAST. Get up early. Take a walk. Find the nearest diner and get some eggs up into you. Protein is king. It’s like metabolic bet-hedging. You’ll still be exposed to sandwiches, cookies, and booze, but your hunger will be quieter, thanks to the high satiety power of protein, and you may be in a better position to make a better choice.
Okurrrrrr if you’re en route to a vacation, have at ‘er! Buy a $14 glass of wine at the airport restaurant and indulge in the gnocchi or the chips n guac. There’s something fun about being at the airport before a vacation, and I think food is meant to be fun, and indulgent sometimes! I’d advise against going into the candy store though, unless that’s a really special part of your ritual. I do like rituals. But there's a fine line between ritual and habit. If you travel regularly, a ritualistic bag of M&Ms can become a bit of a dodgy habit.
When you’re actually at your vacation destination, though, breakfast is still a good bet-hedger — and it’s usually the one meal that you have some control over. Get a good brekky into you and then let the rest of the day’s eating and drinking unfold as it may. You’re on vacation! Live it up. Food is meant to be indulged in.
This feels like weird nutrition advice but I’m going with it because life is too short.
Disclaimer: if you are an insulin-dependent diabetic or have been diagnosed with any other disease state that requires that you need to eat at short intervals, this information is not for you.