92770239 - tired passenger sleeping on the airplane at window seat

No state secrets, just beloved diets…

News alert: your body is full of clocks. These clocks in the brain, liver and heart release chemicals and reactions which dictate when it’s time to be tired, hungry or ramp up your energy. Naturally, when you travel across time zones, the clocks sound like the intro to Pink Floyd’s “Time” and signals get messed up. In a high functioning job, like being a secret agent spy, this is unacceptable.

For decades, researchers studied how eating patterns could help or hinder jet lag, and one study was found to be the most conclusive of all. So much so, it’s been widely used by CIA operatives, as well as the US Army, Navy and presidents – not to mention a-listers from your your favourite movies. Here’s a breakdown of the Argonne anti jet lag diet developed by Charles Ehret, and the simplified update it received from Dr. Clifford B. Saper of the Beth Israel Medical Center in Boston.

Bad News First

Here’s the bad news: if you love airplane food, or a glass of something alcoholic to make you forget that you’re in a metal tube, you might as well stop reading. A key tenet of this acclaimed diet is to fast on planes, and drink nothing but water. No coke, no caffeine, no booze, no nothing. Just H20. In fact, the fasting starts before departure, so the airport is off limits too.

a couple of wine glasses on a tableThe Premise

You want to adjust eating schedules to your destination, not your present location and fasting has been proven to be the best way. Certain foods and eating patterns help release the chemicals your body needs to adjust to local time where you’re going at an accelerated rate, which helps travellers to be at their very best from the first minute, whether it’s for spy missions or tourism.

The first step is to figure out local breakfast time at your destination, and what time that translates to where you are right now. This may require getting out a calculator, a time zone chart and doing a bit of math, but that’s what mobile phone assistants like Google and Siri are for…

92770239 - tired passenger sleeping on the airplane at window seat jet lagThe Simplified Beth Israel Version

On the day of your travel, you must fast for 12-16 hours from the time breakfast would be served at your final travel destination when you arrive.

Figure out that time and stop 12-16 hours before. Once that window has passed and your fast begins, you must stick to a strictly water diet. No snacks, tea, coffee or lemonade either. A little snack will ruin the entire thing. Painful, we know. By fasting, you allow your body clock to reset when you reward it with breakfast at its new local destination time. Basically the body sheds any memory of when it was supposed to eat and readjusts to its new zone.

Example: you fly from New York to London on March 12th in the evening. Your next meal will be about 3AM New York time late that night, which is 8AM London time on March 13th. You need to start your fasting around 12-16 hours before then. Basically, you’ll need to fast well before you reach the airport. This would mean stopping your meals, which should be high protein, at around noon that day.

Sydney Opera House with pointed roof and stairsIf you were flying somewhere further, perhaps to Australia, you’d likely start to fast somewhere along the journey, at the same 12-16 hours before your first breakfast would take place in Australia.

Once the fast is over and it’s breakfast time where you’re going, you need a high protein breakfast to kick your energy levels back up. Avoiding starches and carbs throughout the day is the key, as is to stay in well lit environments. Ideally, stimulating the body with exercise, or fresh air at the very least, will help too. Keep moving, and if you must get some caffeine in your system, this must be done by 3PM local time. At night, you’re supposed to eat a hearty pasta/carb dinner to trigger natural sleep.

With any luck, you’ll fall asleep at a natural time and get enough rest to make you productive through the next day. According to research, this method makes you seven times more likely to kick jet lag when going West (left), and 14 times more likely when traveling East (right).

Sunset aerial view through airplane window over wings. Flying at sunset and looking out of the window and enjoying the panoramic view. Travel and transportation conceptsThe Extreme Argonne CIA Version

Picture everything above, and add a few days of prep to it, with alternating days of feasting and fasting. The Argonne version involves bringing your body more toward destination time in the days leading up to your departure, rather than just the actual day of your departure. Essentially, you’re not  tricking your stomach into resetting, you’re conditioning it.

In essence, you feast, fast, feast, fast. Four days before travel you’ll feast on high protein meals throughout the day and high carb dinners at night. In a perfect world, you eat at destination time on these days, so for a person in New York going to London, that would mean eating breakfast at 3AM.

The next day, you essentially fast, sticking only to water and light caffeine intake. Then the next day you follow the same feasting routine, focused around eating closer to destination time. On the day of travel, you basically follow the study above, fasting from 12-16 hours before breakfast when you land.

The updated version from Beth Israel seemed to believe that additional benefits of this more extreme approach may not be noticeable enough to justify the added effort, given how well the abbreviated version does work. While this may be the ultimate buzz kill for airplane oenophiles and those seeking the culinary delights of reheated meals, there’s nothing like feeling fresh.

Avoid carbs, caffeine, alcohol and basically everything but water. No problem, right?

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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  1. I’ve been doing 16hrs+ and it works wonders, long haul from asia.

    I can’t imagine you’d get much benefit from 12 hours.

    I try to intermittent fast most days anyways so this isn’t too much of a stretch. Yes there will be a pain point where you miss a meal, but its totally worth it! Talking from a week of jetlag previously down to a day or two.

    It works.

  2. Okay, so I’m flying to Beijing pretty soon and arrive at 4pm there, so the next morning I’d eat breakfast at 8am. So does that mean I’d basically just eat until I get there and then just stop eating on arrival until breakfast the next morning?

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