The Fare Up There

Sadly my wallet doesn’t stretch far enough to allow me to indulge in the luxury of first class and rarely business class. So like the majority of other travellers I’m stuck in cattle class where comfort and lavish cuisine are disappointingly not the top priority for an airline. On a recent trip to Australia I experienced the full pleasures of Economy class with 23 hours of air time twice in two weeks! I’m sure anyone that has ventured farther a field than Europe has experienced the joys of airline food.

The small pre-packaged arrangement that arrives on your tray is not the most appealing of three course meals. Hopefully by now you’ve managed to throw back a few alcoholic beverages to lessen the concern about its appearance, and what it actually contains. I know that after landing I felt a little worse for wear but I don’t know how much of this was to do with being stuck in my seat for far too long, the jet lag or infact the four airline meals that had been the only thing to pass my lips all day. Well, as ever I did a little research to find out what is going on.

To get the situation into perspective there are a lot of these meals produced per day. Infact British Airways uses about 80,000 daily, that’s over 29 million per year just for a single carrier! It is an enormous number and goes some way to explaining why everything is ordered, labelled and completely pre packed, the logistics must be a nightmare. And I must say credit is due as I didn’t actually think a few of my meals were all that bad. Infact there was a beef dish that I really quite liked!

To get to the bottom of the health impact though it’s important to understand the physical affects that flying has on your body and the consequences of sitting in a confined space for hours on end. Apart from the obvious like DVT, the digestive system also takes a hard knock. The air pressure inside a plane is equivalent to being on top of a mountain 2200 meters high so your whole body can swell making everything a little uncomfortable and not work particularly well.

It’s known to mountain climbers that eating carbohydrates and reducing protein gives you an advantage when at altitude (your body relies less on fat as an energy source and more on carbs, it’s believed that this makes it easier for oxygen to dissolve in your blood). So this is good advice when selecting your meal too, the carbohydrates will help you feel better and think better. It’s even suggested that you will recover from your jetlag faster too. So instead of the chicken you should probably aim for a light vegetarian pasta or even a salad sandwich.

Another side effect of altitude is that our taste buds don’t work correctly. That means that food tends to taste blander to us than it would if we ate the same meal when on the ground. To counteract this many airline catering firms will add large amounts of salt to try to boost the taste. We all know it’s hard to stay hydrated when flying (all that free booze doesn’t help either!) but adding large amounts of salt certainly doesn’t help. If you (like me) get swollen ankles when you have a long flight this could be an attributing factor. It’s good to know though that many airlines offer reduced salt meals. Like all other special meals you need to order them ahead of time, typically a day or two before your flight but it’s a good idea to make the effort if you can.

With the lack of exercise and the fact our intestines are not running at peak performance the best solution would be to eat little and snack on a few carbohydrate rich snack bars when you’re peckish. To be honest though I need my meals and the thought of a fast would be too much to bear in an already uncomfortable situation. But if you’re a stronger individual than me it seems like a good option.

I do get the feeling that the airlines are in a bit of a bind. People are used to eating chicken and beef in meals that are rich in flavour. This means that the airlines try to reproduce what the public want or at least something that they won’t turn their noses up at. So they are required to serve us highly salted, protein packed meals even though they are probably not the best thing for us. But I don’t think the airlines can be totally blame free just because they have meals hidden in the back of some trolley that are better for us, they need to make it more obvious that this is the case. If before the meal was wheeled out an announcement told me that the slightly bland pasta dish would make me feel better and stop my feet swelling I’d be at the front of the queue!

So the next time I fly I think I will call my airline a few days before I fly to find out what special meals they can offer me. I might even go as far as to take a few healthy snacks along for the ride. I know that a days worth of relatively unhealthy meals won’t kill me but they certainly won’t make me any stronger!