Often, we see headlines regarding commercial aviation being one of the most stressful professions, listed next to firefighting and serving in the military. This includes environmental stress, physiological stress and psychological stress. Many factors attribute to these stresses such as disrupted or inconsistent circadian sleep cycles, long periods of sitting, exposure to radiation, high cognitive demand/multi-tasking, dehydration and lack of access to nutritious foods. This stress breaks down our immune system, increasing our likelihood of getting sick or just not operating to our required safest capacity. (Remember the IM SAFE checklist?)
If you are reading this, the chances are good you are already heavily invested in a career in aviation and you probably wouldn’t have it any other way. Let’s face it – we love flying! While some of the stresses/threats to our health are fixed, such as poor scheduling and radiation, there are some variables we have in our control, including the food choices we make every day.
Operating in a sedentary position and situated in a food wasteland increase our chances for obesity. Both higher levels of obesity and lower levels of fruit and vegetable consumption increase acute susceptibility to influenza and the common cold, in addition to increasing our chances for chronic illness such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. The common denominator is oxidative stress in the body. Our focus is the detrimental effects of the Standard American Diet (S.A.D.), which is high in refined sugars, saturated fats and cholesterol. This means most among flight crews are living in a constant state of “oxidative debt.”
This means that every time we eat, we get a spike in oxidative stress with digestion from refined foods and meat products. This is coupled with the environmental, physiological, and psychological stresses induced from our work environment. So, what are some precautions we can take to navigate this stressful career flight path?
A user friendly, successful approach is not to restrict your diet, or deprive yourself, but to modify what you already do! This means increasing antioxidant intake at every opportunity. Primarily, antioxidants come from plants and some plant foods are better than others, so let’s get creative.
We might enjoy bananas at breakfast. Unfortunately, although a plant food, bananas are low in antioxidants. A simple exchange of bananas for berries, such as blueberries, strawberries or even grapes, will do the trick. A great option for packing these anti-stress powerhouses, is to purchase freeze-dried berries and include some raisins. These are easy to pack and pair wonderfully in cereals or oatmeal. Other fruit options that stand up well to abuse and travel are apples, oranges, prunes and dates. If you plan to dine out, for an extra boost of protective antioxidants, try a squeeze of lemon on your meal and lemon water to wash it down.
Most of us love chocolate, but fear not! Don’t stop eating chocolate, just exchange chocolate bars for pure cacao powder. Research shows pure chocolate dilates coronary arteries and reduces blood pressure for hours after consumption. Chocolate bars contain milk which negates this effect and the added refined sugar also impairs arterial function. So, a teaspoon to a tablespoon of cacao powder added to your breakfast cereal or oatmeal is a great way to benefit and make it taste great too.
Ounce for ounce, herbs and spices are the highest concentrated source of antioxidants. While oregano is great, exchanging marjoram is even better. Other herbs like sage, basil, rosemary and thyme are great too. For spices, the dried Indian gooseberry (also known as amla) has one of the highest levels of antioxidant and is great paired with cinnamon and clove. These will crank up the restorative power of anything from breakfast to dessert, including over baked sweet potatoes for a healthy snack or side dish.
Meanwhile, the b-glucan found in a couple teaspoons a day of nutritional yeast strengthens your immune system when coupled with consistent exercise. Sprinkle this over most dishes for a healthy alternative for cheese flavor but without the calorie laden saturated fat and heart damaging cholesterol.
For veggies, we may think that a typical side salad at lunch is the yin to the yang of a cheeseburger, but not so fast. Upgrade to a full salad and exchange the iceberg lettuce for dark greens with added red cabbage. Carrots are a good start, but adding some red beets is even better. Topping that salad with artichokes is the best. Ditch the French fries for a side of baked sweet potato with the above-mentioned spices for a home run.
When you have a choice for grains, dump the white rice for brown rice and go for black rice if it’s available. If you are thinking of chickpeas, upgrade to black beans, kidney beans, or even pinto beans, soybeans or lentils. These carry much more antioxidants and are great alternatives to humus, which is often heavy with oil.
Those in-between snacks have room for an antioxidant punch, too. Trade out potato chips for kale chips, and swap peanuts for a handful of walnuts, pecans or pistachios for the best bang for your calories. (Remember to check the ingredient lists for packaged nuts as most contain added oils and/or sugars, adding empty calories to an already calorie dense snack). As for your caffeinated beverages, coffee has been shown to have protective effects, but green tea mixed with a squeeze of lemon and ginger beats the black sludge every time.
Some of us have a sweet tooth and in the evening, it can be a struggle to wind down without a treat. Try going for a walk to the nearest smoothie store that specializes in acai bowls for a tasty tradeoff from ice cream.
Unfortunately, research shows there are no shortcuts. Taking antioxidant pills actually increases mortality and disrupts the body’s balance that is naturally accomplished through ingesting foods in their whole state. As always, consult your doctor for specifics if you are dealing with complicated health issues.
Hopefully the above tips will provide you the necessary guidance to make healthier decisions when dining out during your travels. To take it a step further, pack your food in a cooler and download our free crew meal planning app, Fit Flyer. We have removed the guesswork and incorporated these food choices into our recipes. Plus, we have made sure they last the duration of a four-day trip. At every meal, you can stay clear of oxidative stress and nourish your body with delicious foods to maintain your flight medical — one satisfying bite at a time. ACN