Two years into the pandemic, many of us finally feel comfortable with air travel again — and the slowly warming weather and spring blossoms have us dreaming of our next vacation.
When we think of travel prep, we often think about what we’re going to pack, how we’re going to entertain ourselves on the plane, and of course, what we’ll actually do on vacation. One thing we don’t think about? What we’re going to eat on the plane. But we should, because the foods we choose to eat can make or break our flying experience.
“Traveling of any kind tends to disrupt digestion,” explained Anthea Levi, a registered dietitian with Culina Health. “The combination of altered morning routines, less regular meals, and new foods can mess with regularity and promote sluggishness.”
Add being on a plane, and you’re pretty much destined for tummy troubles. “Changes in air pressure on airplanes can contribute to gas buildup in the GI tract, hence why your belly may feel extra bloated up in the air,” Levi noted. “The more gas that’s introduced into the stomach and intestines, the more puffy we may feel.”
Before you accept bloat as an inevitable side effect of travel, consider this: What you eat and drink — and what you forgo — could help make flying a lot more comfortable. Here are the best foods and drinks to eat on a plane, and the ones to avoid.
What you should eat on a plane
Sure, abstaining from food altogether while on a plane might help your stomach feel a little better. But if you’re going to fly for longer than a few hours, that isn’t realistic. So what should you eat and drink on a plane?
A protein-packed smoothie
This one might be a little tough to get through airport security, but if you can find any restaurants or cafés in the terminal that sell smoothies — and healthy ones, not the types packed with sugar! — you’ll have a great airplane snack. “When you drink an easy-to-digest protein smoothie, the gut is responsible for less of the ‘breakdown,’ which makes for easier digestion,” explained Abby Grimm, a registered dietitian for FWDfuel.
Fruit is an easy, affordable food that you can bring with you and snack on mid-flight without worrying about bloat. “Oranges, bananas or other fruits can be a great source of immunity (vitamin C) as well as minerals (potassium, magnesium) that can support digestion and inflammation reduction,” Grimm said.
This might be the most boring suggestion, but it’s also one of the most important ones. “Air travel tends to dehydrate us thanks to low humidity levels in the aircraft, so it’s important to keep up your water intake in-flight,” Levi said. “Bring a large (empty!) water bottle with you to the airport and fill it up before you board. Bonus points if you also ask for two cups of H2O every time the flight attendants come by with the beverage cart.”
Hard-boiled eggs or other lean protein
No, you probably won’t become best friends with your seatmate if you bring eggs with you, but your stomach will thank you for it.
“Lean proteins like hard-boiled eggs, grilled chicken, shrimp, tofu or plain Greek yogurt are great options since protein is the most satiating of the macronutrients,” Levi said. “In fact, some research suggests that high-protein snacks improve appetite control and promote satiety even more so than high-fat snacks. Packing protein-rich meals or snacks for your flight will help keep you full for longer than a bag of pretzels or salted peanuts.”
Just make sure you eat them within 2 hours of removing them from refrigeration.
String cheese with cucumbers
Sodium can be very bloating, and most of the snacks at the airport and on the plane are packed with it. So before you leave for the airport, assemble a few low-maintenance, low-sodium snacks. “Think Greek yogurt and walnuts, string cheese with cucumber or carrot sticks, or a homemade whole wheat wrap filled with grilled chicken, veggies and a low-sugar BBQ sauce,” Levi suggested.
Peppermint is oh-so-soothing for the gut, so pack a few tea bags and ask for hot water on the plane. “This will help support digestion,” Grimm said.
What you should avoid on a plane
Now for the not-so-fun part: What foods should you avoid when you fly?
Anything with carbonation
Sorry, but you’ll want to skip the mid-flight soda. “Avoid anything with carbonation,” Levi said. “Travelers love ginger ale, but bubbly drinks introduce more gas into the digestive tract. Since airplane travel tends to bring on bloat already, it’s helpful to avoid anything fizzy and instead choose something flat and hydrating, like plain old H2O.”
Broccoli, kale, beans, and other high-fiber veggies
You may think you’re making the healthy choice by eating fiber-packed veggies while on board, but you’ll probably want to wait until you land to eat them. “You’ll want to avoid high amounts of fiber like a kale salad or broccoli because these fibrous foods take longer to pass through the GI tract and may allow for fermentation of carbs from bacteria in the small intestine,” Grimm said.
Additionally, beans and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli can trigger a not-so-great reaction in the gut. “Though incredibly good for us, highly fermentable foods like beans and cruciferous vegetables are not ideal plane fare,” Levi explained. “These foods contain short-chain carbohydrates that can trigger gas and bloating in sensitive individuals.”
Chicken fingers and french fries
There’s no shortage of fast food in airport terminals, but trust us on this one: You’re better off just saying no. “Skip fatty foods like chicken fingers or fries, because high amounts of fat require high amounts of enzymes and bile to be produced and these processes are less efficient when the pressure of the gut is high,” Grimm said.
We’re all about indulging on vacation, but you may want to wait until you’ve reached your destination to sip on your celebratory “I’m on vacation” Champagne. “Since these beverages can act as diuretics, they may contribute to dehydration while traveling,” Levi explained.
As it turns out, the very foods the flight attendants push on you are the ones you should avoid. “Salty packaged snacks like pretzels, salted nuts and potato chips can contribute to dehydration thanks to their high sodium content,” Levi said.
Air travel is famous for being tough on the gut. But with the right tweaks, you’ll arrive at your destination bloat-free and ready to fully enjoy your vacation.