For a while now, I have been refusing meals on flights shorter than four hours. Recently I expanded my no-airplane-food commitment to include long-haul flights. Why? As I was starting to market a biodegradable alternative to traditional plastic glitter, I became hyperaware of the amount of plastic that passes through my hands and into the trash every day… and I was horrified by the amount of plastic used in airplane meals. Apart from being kind to my palate, as well as to the planet, I found some unexpected benefits to my new personal travel policy. Here are three good reasons why you might try fasting the next time you fly:
Reason #1: It’s good for the planet
Serving food in flight is not so simple. Airline meals are subject to strict health and safety regulations. In fact, the airline food safety rulebook is close to a hundred pages long. It covers topics such as temperature control, delay handling, food truck loading, packaging design, freezing, thawing, serving, and on and on. In short, airline meals are meticulously designed and delivered to meet comprehensive standards, and quite often, this means they have to use a ridiculous amount of plastic packaging.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimated there were 3.6 billion commercial airline passengers in 2016. Let’s say conservatively we expect that half of those yearly 3.6 billion passengers were served one in-flight meal. Passengers on shorter flights may get none, while those on longer flights may get 2 or 3 meals. That’s still 1.8 billion airline meals consumed every year… each one of them using approximately 5-10 single-use pieces of plastic packaging, plastic cutlery and plastic cups.
So what difference does it make if you refuse your meal? It will just go in the bin anyway along with all the plastic it was wrapped in, right? Yes. But this isn’t a one off, single move, single player game. Imagine what happens if you turn down your meal every time. By your example, you influence passengers near you to do the same. Those passengers start to influence others. And so it continues. When half of the meals on a flight are coming back unused, airlines will start to notice the amount of money that is wasted on uneaten meals. And trust me, if there is one thing that airlines don’t like to waste, it is money. Consumer choice can impact corporate conscience.
Reason #2: It’s good for your health
Have you heard of intermittent fasting? Intermittent fasting means you don’t consume anything besides water for 12 to 16 hours in a day. Some people do this for an extended time between dinner and breakfast the next morning. Some choose to bypass dinner altogether. Others may fast for one full day each week. It sounds extreme perhaps, but this is not some crazy new diet fad. It is a rediscovered ancient health practice that has been gaining popularity in recent years.
Scientific research has shown that intermittent fasting has a broad range of health benefits, which include losing weight, increasing energy, detoxifying your system, reducing oxidative stress, stabilizing your metabolism, and reducing disease... even reversing Type 2 diabetes. Seriously.
According to Dr. Jason Fung, intermittent fasting is about restoring the body’s natural balance between eating and fasting, which we have strayed from in modern life. He says, “If we start eating the minute we roll out of bed, and do not stop until we go to sleep, we spend almost all our time in the fed state. Over time, we gain weight because we have not allowed our body any time to burn food energy.”
On a recent flight to Singapore, the flight attendant offered me a meal and I waved her off saying “no thanks I’m not hungry.” Moments later, the woman sitting next to me handed her meal back too, reflecting aloud “actually I’m not hungry either.” She seemed surprised at this realization. We often eat more than we need to, because we are simply unaware, soothing emotions while eating alone, or conforming to social cues while eating in groups. Turning down a meal once in a while – up in the air or on the ground – can do your body good. It’s a healthy practice to check in when you eat, to see whether you’re truly hungry or eating unconsciously.
Reason #3: It’s good for reducing jet lag
Jet lag is mostly seen as an inevitable side effect of long distance air travel. We generally expect to be sleep deprived when traveling across time zones because our normal light-dark cycle of night and day is disrupted. But another important anchor of our daily rhythms – the eat-fast cycle – is often overlooked. Researchers at Beth Israel Medical Center suggest that, “because food is as essential for survival as sleep is, hunger can influence circadian rhythms as much as changes in light/dark patterns do.”
The original anti-jet lag diet came from studies conducted by Charles Ehret, a chronobiologist at Argonne National Lab. His research showed irregularly timed meals have an “unmooring” effect on the body’s biological clock, allowing it to be reset more easily. The Argonne anti-jet lag diet requires travelers to adhere to a feast-fast-feast-fast cycle starting four days before their flight commences. This diet has reportedly been used to great benefit by the Army, Navy and CIA.
Fortunately, for those of us who are a bit less disciplined, Dr. Saper from Beth Israel offers a “fast-track” solution – simply avoid food for the 16 hours leading up to breakfast time at your destination. If this makes your head hurt, there’s a jet lag diet calculator available online to help you figure out when to stop eating.
I experimented with this last month while flying from Hong Kong to San Francisco with a layover in Seoul. I fasted for nearly 20 hours while in transit, consuming only water. It worked wonders; I experienced zero jet lag. Usually it takes me several days to feel normal again after a transpacific flight from west to east. This time I was at full function (no mid-afternoon naps required) on my first day back.
This is some food for thought on your food in flight.* The next time a flight attendant offers you one of those adorably packaged airline meals — with every component and every condiment hermetically sealed in its individual compartment — consider the environmental impact, your health, and your sleep cycle. Maybe you will politely decline instead of flying along with the scheduled program.
*Note: I am not a medical doctor and this does not constitute medical advice. If you have questions about whether fasting is appropriate for you, please consult your physician.
About Wendy May
I am an executive coach, organizational ecosystem hacker, transformation facilitator and digital nomad. I care a lot about conscious business, feminine leadership, organizational health, and the progression of inner work in step with outer activism. In my work, I have found that the methods we use to navigate change in organizations can also help guide personal transformation for the “soul purpose” of experiencing greater freedom and fulfillment in life. I offer coaching and transformational retreats for women pursuing purpose-aligned work. I am also the creator of a biodegradable glitter brand. You can connect with me here.