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PERSONAL HEALTH : What to Eat Before a Test or a Long Flight


Deciding what to eat before certain potentially stress-filled situations can be tough. Should you eat fruit or salad before a job interview? Is it best to drink water or an alcoholic beverage before getting on an airplane?

How do you make it through in fine form? Here, experts give their advice--not always a consensus--on what to consume for maximum performance and minimal embarrassment.

Before a Long Flight

Drink water, lots of it, says Dr. Howard Flaks, a Beverly Hills physician specializing in the treatment of obesity.

"Many studies have shown that drinking a lot of water can help counteract some of the effects of jet lag and can prevent the bloating that some people experience," he says.

Avoid foods such as bread and pasta on long flights because they tend to soak up water and might add to the bloated feeling, he says.

"Stay away from dehydrating drinks," adds Ellen Coleman, dietitian and exercise physiologist at the Sport Clinic, Riverside. Tops on that list: alcohol and caffeine. If you're a hard-core coffee drinker catching an early-morning flight, one cup probably won't hurt, she concedes. But high volumes of dehydrating drinks can make you feel worse once you reach your destination. "The fluid loss can contribute to jet lag," Coleman says.

Choose meals low in fat and moderate in protein content, Coleman adds. That means passing up creamy sauces, cheesy concoctions and rich croissants.

If you can't follow those rules to the letter, West Los Angeles dietitian Diane Whelan offers two simpler ones: Don't eat big meals before or during a flight and avoid salty foods, which can make you feel bloated and blah.

The so-called anti-jet-lag diet has fallen from favor among many experts. Proposed by Charles F. Ehret in the 1986 book, "Overcoming Jet Lag," the diet plan proposes eating certain types of foods at certain times, alternating high-protein fare with high-carbohydrate foods and switching between days of high-caloric intake with lower-caloric intake.

But in a study presented in 1990, researcher Margaret Moline of the New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center reported that subjects who followed the diet plan adjusted no more quickly to a new time zone simulated for the study than those who ate as they wished.

Before a Job Interview or Important Meeting

What you eat should be dictated by your state of mind and, some say, your age and gender. If you're over 40, too many carbohydrate-rich foods have been shown to make women sleepy and men calmer, according to some studies. Older people might also have attention lapses.

If your pre-interview meal is one at which you usually drink coffee, indulge, experts concur, unless you're on-the-ceiling nervous.

Salad and some fruit is a good pre-interview lunch, Flaks says, as is salad balanced with a protein such as chicken. Most important, he says, is to eat lightly.

"The worst time to take an exam or do something that requires a lot of concentration is after eating a large meal," he says.

Think twice about soda or other carbonated beverages if they tend to make you belch.

Before Sex

What's good for the airborne can work for the amorous, according to Flaks.

"Drink a lot of water, because it cools down your body so you don't sweat as much," says Flaks.

If dinner precedes romance, eat something fairly low in fat such as fish, chicken or vegetables, advises Candy Cumming, dietitian and health educator at Grossmont Hospital Wellness Center, La Mesa, and author of "Sex and Your Diet."

Even better, is a meal of spaghetti with marinara sauce, accompanied by bread and salad. Eaten in moderation, the carbohydrate-rich menu will help you relax, she says. If you're drinking wine, choose white because it is less likely to bring on a headache. But only a little.

"Drink too much wine, and a guy could have transient impotence. I would shun (heavy) dessert, too, except perhaps for sharing a bit of chocolate," she says.

Don't eat a high-fat meal, either. "It takes longer to digest and you might fall asleep before the main event," she says.

Avoiding fatty foods could be especially important for men, according to a University of Utah study published in 1990 in the journal Metabolism.

Dr. A. Wayne Meikle, professor of medicine, and his research team fed eight men, ages 23 to 35, high-fat meals and low-fat meals on two occasions. After the fat-containing meal--but not after the low-fat meal--testosterone levels declined by about 30%. "If that occurred chronically, it could impair performance," he says.

Which is not to say you should play it safe and eat nothing or too little. "If you have an empty stomach," Cumming says, "you might get irritable."

Before a Physical Examination

Almost invariably, physicals involve laboratory testing," Flaks says. "To ensure lab levels are accurate, it is important to do some tests on a fasting level. So you should try not to eat at all and to schedule the exam for the morning." Ask your doctor for specifics, Flaks advises, since there might be special fasting instructions.

Before Errands

Eat pasta, and experts say you might be too relaxed to care about that endless errand list. Instead? A small- to moderate-size meal, not too high on carbohydrates, Coleman advises. Coffee is fine, she says, if you usually drink it. "Carry fruit or crackers," she adds. This will keep your energy up when errands take twice as long.

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