How to Avoid Jet Lag by Dieting
Jet lag doesn’t deserve an introduction. It’s just awful. To get my brain going after a long international flight, I’ve tried everything short of placing a defibrillator on my skull. I needed to figure out how to avoid jet lag, since I travel often and didn’t like getting hyped up for an exciting trip overseas only to end up zombie-walking through the streets in a hazy, nauseous malaise.
Recently, with a 15-hour flight from Chicago to Shanghai looming, friends gave me the scoop on a mysterious “jet lag diet” that worked for them. I was skeptical, but also desperate. So I followed the diet step-by-step, touched down in China...and felt pretty sprightly. Somehow my mind didn’t melt as I took in Shanghai’s scenic Bund riverfront and the larger-than-life Pudong skyline. Meanwhile, the other members of my travel party complained of feeling hungover from the flight. (Suckers!)
Not long after, I had the opportunity to visit Berlin and wanted to test the jet lag diet once again. While studies had shown the diet was more effective for international flights heading west than those heading east, I was optimistic. And when I arrived in Berlin at 9 a.m., I felt chipper, wide awake, and ready to sightsee. After walking from the Reichstag over to Museum Island and back (about 4 miles total), I finally crashed at around 8 p.m., meaning my personal experience more or less lined up with the studies. But the jet-lag diet had kept me from feeling awful for most of the day—a success in my book. It has since become of my favorite tips for traveling abroad.
Find more tips for traveling abroad in our international travel checklist.
How to Follow the Jet Lag Diet
First things first: Do the math. Figure out the day your flight arrives at your final destination. Make a note of the time when you’ll likely eat breakfast at your destination. Then trace back four full days from that point. This will be day 1 of the diet.
On days 1 and 3, feast. For breakfast and lunch, eat meals with lots of protein, such as meats, eggs, beans, fish, and yogurt. For dinner, have a high-carbohydrate meal. Think pasta, breads, crepes, potatoes, starchy veggies, and sweet desserts.
On days 2 and 4, fast. Keep it light for the whole day. Try non-creamy soups, fruits, and salads.
On day 4, keep meals light until you reach breakfast time at your destination. Then, enjoy a large, high-protein breakfast.
In between, watch the caffeine: On days 1–3, only drink caffeinated beverages from 3 p.m to 5 p.m. On day 4, use the following rule: If your flight is westbound, drink caffeine in the morning. If your flight is eastbound, drink caffeine between 6 p.m. and 11 p.m.
Why the Jet Lag Diet Works
What and when we eat and drink can have a great influence on the body’s internal clock, which can get really messed up when you’re traveling across multiple time zones. This diet, conceived by Dr. Charles Ehret at the Argonne National Laboratory, focuses on resetting your circadian rhythms in the 96 hours before your big trip. If you alternate days of feasting and fasting, there’s a better chance you’ll be able to more quickly adjust to a new time zone.
Dr. Ehret reported promising results: those who used the diet were 7 times less likely to complain of jet lag for flights headed eastbound. When their flight headed west, participants complained 16 times less. Ronald Reagan was a fan of the diet. The US Secret Service, the CIA, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir have all used it. That’s good enough for me.
(For more in-depth planning for the diet, consult Dr. Ehret’s book, Overcoming Jet Lag, written with Lynne Waller Scanlon.)
Tips for the Flight
- Ask the flight attendant to hold any high-protein meals. Then have them serve this meal for your breakfast.
- Use light to your advantage. Light is a trigger to your brain that you are about to start being active for the day. If it’s nighttime at your destination, but still daytime when you’re flying, pull the window cover down. If it’s daytime at your destination, but nighttime where you’re flying, turn on the overhead light.
- Try to sleep. Your body needs sleep! The jet lag diet does not opt you out of basic physical necessities. Severe sleep deprivation can hurt the diet’s effectiveness.
- When you’re awake for the day, try to do some stretches in your seat. If you could walk around the plane a little, that’s even better (just stay away from the cockpit).
A flight attendant talks airplane etiquette and where to find the safest seats on a plane.
A Few Caveats
I had a highly positive experience with the diet, but there are no guarantees you’ll feel stupendous after your flight. If you’re flying through 10 time zones, it’s harder to avoid jet lag. After a flight of that distance, as Dr. Ehret notes in Overcoming Jet Lag, it could take a few days to fully recover. That said, he believed that you’ll still recover much quicker after using the diet than without using it. As a rule of thumb, to recover fully from jet lag without this diet, it takes about a day per time time zone crossed.
Just to be sure, it’s smart to consult your doctor before your flight—especially if you’re taking prescription drugs.
Good luck! And death to jet lag.