You strive to ensure your airplane is airworthy, but what about the most important thing in the cockpit — you? Are you eating properly to ensure peak performance inflight?
That’s especially difficult these days, with fast food restaurants on every corner and junk food so easily accessible.
Many people still believe the standard food pyramid is the best way to eat. The pyramid, first introduced in 1992, details the number of servings of each type of food we should strive for each day, such as six to 11 servings of grains, two to four servings of fruits, three to five servings of vegetables, and two to three servings of protein, such as meat, fish or eggs.
However, the food pyramid was replaced in 2011 with My Plate, a government initiative introduced by First Lady Michelle Obama designed to encourage people to eat healthier by creating a plate at each meal that is at least half full of vegetables and fruits, with less emphasis on grains and no mention anywhere on the plate of fats.
Maybe not, according to a study released in 2009 from researchers at the University of North Dakota.
To test the effects of diet on cognition and flight performance, Glenda Lindseth, Ph.D., and Paul Lindseth, Ph.D., professors at the university, conducted a clinical study of pilots who were part of UND’s aviation program.
While the study was done under the auspices of the Department of Defense’s Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs, its findings also can relate to general aviation pilots.
For the study, students were randomly assigned to a rotation of diets, with one being primarily high fat, another high carbohydrate, and a third made up of primarily high protein foods.
The researchers then evaluated the students’ flight performance in a full-motion simulator. They also performed a number of other tests to evaluate cognitive function.
What they found is that the overall flight performance scores for pilots who consumed high-fat diets and high-carbohydrate diets were significantly better than the scores for pilots who consumed high-protein diets. According to the researchers, pilots on the high-fat diet scored about 27% better than those on the high-protein diet. They also scored about 10% better than pilots on the control diet, which was a typical well-balanced diet.
The researchers also found that pilots on the high-carbohydrate diet scored about 22% better than those on the high-protein diet. They reported to military officials that pilots on the high-protein diet also experienced irritability and high anxiety levels, and did not sleep as well as the other pilots.
According to results from the Sternberg Test of Mental Agility, researchers noticed response times were significantly faster for pilots on the high-fat diet, especially at higher memory loads.
Pilots on high-protein diets performed significantly worse on this test of cognitive function than pilots on high-fat diets and high-carbohydrate diets, according to the researchers.
The researchers also noted one other interesting aspect of the study: Even a brief change in the pilots’ diets “significantly impacted” performance on a test of short-term memory. In fact, improved results were seen after just four days on a particular diet.
“These study results contribute significantly to our understanding of the effects diet can have on cognition and performance,” said Glenda Lindseth. “With additional research, these findings may help decrease the number of aviation accidents due to pilot error, which is especially important for the warfighter.”
So what does this mean for general aviation pilots?
Don’t be afraid of fatty foods, including whole milk, real butter, nuts, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, avocados, coconut oil, olives and more.
Research beyond the UND study shows that this type of diet improves cognitive function. It also is very satisfying, which means you don’t have to eat as often, a big plus if you are frequently airborne.
Stay away from sugars and processed foods, such as white bread, baked goods and typical snack foods. These will play havoc with your blood sugar, leading to what is commonly called a sugar crash — not something you want to happen while on a long cross-country flight.
In fact, there’s a movement afoot now that encourages people to “Just Eat Real Food.” If it comes in a package or you can microwave it, it probably isn’t the healthiest option for peak pilot performance.
Practice mindful eating. Too many of us wolf our food down while doing something else. Take the time to enjoy your meals and snacks, which will help you stop when your hunger is satiated. This means no more food comas or feeling stuffed, nutritionists note.
Stay hydrated. Most Americans are chronically dehydrated. When you feel a craving for a treat, first drink some water. Those hunger pains may actually be your body’s way of telling you it needs water.