Fly Well: Avgas or Jet A?

You are what you consume

June 1, 2013

Sane pilots ensure the Cessna 172 they are about to fly has been fueled with 100LL. Why don’t we treat what we eat with equal attention? Scientific studies have proven causal relationships between food and human disease. These observations impact both your flying and long-term health.

Pilots read placards and the POH, so why not food labels? You know what an orange or chicken is, right? And you probably enjoy eating them. Check out what you buy: Does it contain orange pulp; is it free-range; is it hormone- and antibiotic-free—or does it sound like a science experiment? Do you know what ethyl butyrate is? No? So why eat it? The food industry uses colors to make chow more appealing but as those substances lack nutritional value and might impede brain function, avoid them. Consume food with colors found in nature, not Frankenstein’s lab! Monosodium glutamate, MSG, a common flavor enhancer widely used in Chinese food, is blamed for headaches, sluggishness, bad dreams, increasing national debt, and earthquakes. Some research shows it can impact nerve conduction, triggering aches and pains, and is associated with the genesis of obesity—so maybe it is worth skipping.

Sweetness is an evolutionary trick to suggest calories are coming to fuel our bodies. People switching from sugar to artificial sweeteners may get confused and eat more sugar to seek a high. Cutting down on sugar is commendable, but satisfy cravings by eating fruit rather than switching to artificial chemicals.

“Vitamin” is a contraction of “vital amines,” chemicals needed to sustain life. In the absence of any medical issues and, if consuming a good diet, taking supplements merely makes urine expensive. Your physician can advise if vitamins should be part of your routine.

Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) reduce heart attack, stroke, and other disease incidence and PUFA-rich food (cold-water fish like salmon, trout, and mackerel; avocados; olive oil; nuts), like regular flying, also has been shown to reduce depression. Conversely, a low-PUFA diet has been linked to postpartum depression. Add these to your daily intake with two helpings a week of the right kind of fish. A Mediterranean diet also helps brain function and, when combined with regular exercise, reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Our Mediterranean friends enjoy a glass of wine or two; moderate intake, especially of antioxidant-rich red wine, may protect against cardiovascular disease, reduce cholesterol, prevent aberrant blood clotting, and limit diabetes and dementia. Too much alcohol, however, is dreadful: abuse; dependence; liver; heart and brain disease; psychosocial problems—none of which goes well with a love of aviation.

Protein is an essential component of our diet, but too much red meat, especially processed, raises stroke incidence by up to 13 percent; try substituting poultry, which carries a lower risk. A Mediterranean meal such as a nice piece of grilled salmon, on a bed of spinach cooked with olive oil and pine nuts—with a glass of wine and some fine company—should inspire good conversation as well as healthy attributes.

After such a nice meal, why not enjoy some dark, flavonol-rich chocolate; it may help arterial wall cells, lower blood pressure, and reduce the risk of strokes and heart attacks. Avoid candy bars containing processed transfats, limiting consumption to control calorie intake.

Coffee accompanies chocolate well and four cups of Joe a day reduces depression—but caffeine has other negative effects, so go for quality and not quantity. However, four daily sodas significantly increase depression risk, and sugar load (high-fructose corn syrup) increases obesity by interfering with internal mechanisms to control overeating urges and, by association, diabetes and heart disease. Soda also impairs cognitive function, so it is not a good aviation refreshment. Consume water before you fly and consider taking aboard either electrolyte-enhanced water or sports drinks, avoiding carbonated or sugar-rich variants.

Food inspires immense pleasure; take time to learn more about it. In his book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan says, “When chickens get to live like chickens, they’ll taste like chickens, too.” And they are better for you. Live well, eat well, fly well.

Dr. Jonathan M. Sackier is a surgeon and private pilot living in Virginia. He is a resource for AOPA Pilot Protection Services. Email jonathan.sackier@aopa.org.