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Trail Mix Isn't Just for Hikers

May 1, 2007, New York Times, Trail Mix Isn't Just for Hikers, By Karla Cook.

As tarmac-sitting stories mount and the Transportation Department investigates the possibility of unrealistic flight schedules, nutrition experts are in agreement: carry-on food is crucial for business travelers.

This is not because extra, unplanned hours without food or water can be fatal. Most adults can survive at least three days without water and about three weeks without food, according to the "Rule of 3's in Survival" on the Federal Emergency Management Agency Web site. It is because anxiety can stimulate hunger and thirst, and unquenched needs can turn an unpleasant event to misery.

"You never know what's going to happen," said Nancy Clark, a registered dietitian in Chestnut Hill, Mass., who has written books about the nutrition needs of distance cyclists, marathon runners and other athletes. "It's always wise to have emergency food with you."

Bonnie Taub-Dix, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association who has, on occasion, found herself at meetings with no food or drink provided, takes a more self-sufficient view. "Never count on anyone, that's the bottom line."

"If you're traveling and going to a meeting, you want to be fresh," she said. "If you have to give a presentation, already you're not in a relaxed position. If there's a delay in traveling, it could be stressful. The likelihood is that you won't be comfortable. You won't sleep."

At best, she said, a food kit can help travelers fuel themselves so that they can think clearly. With little prompting, she recited in detail a February business trip to Athens that stretched into a 35-hour ordeal, including 10 hours on the tarmac with no food or water provided by the airline. But she and another spokeswoman at the association, Tara Gidus, were in better shape than many on the plane: They had their stash.

Ms. Gidus, a registered dietitian in the Orlando area, said that an emergency food kit can also serve another function: It helps travelers hold their tempers. "Stress brings out the worst in people, and couple that with hunger — there were people who were very upset."

Sharon R. Akabas, a nutrition professor at Columbia University, said it was an issue of perception. "Someone trapped on the tarmac isn't in danger compared to someone trapped in the snow on Mount Hood," she said. "But ask those people on the plane in the seventh hour, or the 11th hour, and they may not feel any differently."

But beyond a few intensely personal comfort foods — lemon drops, or say, Twizzlers — what is best in an emergency food kit?

There is a Plan A, which is making food at home and packing it in your bag — those are the best intentions, said Dawn Jackson Blatner, also a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, a cooking instructor and a registered dietitian at the Wellness Institute at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. "That's when you have full control. You know portions, you pack whole grains, and one-ounce baggies of nuts."

And there's Plan B, when people cannot get it together, but seek out healthy foods in the airport — pieces of fruit (the fiber and water contribute to a long-lasting feeling of satiety), whole-grain granola bars or nuts.

Additionally, government regulations now limit travelers to only as many three-ounce bottles of liquid as they can stuff in a one-quart zip-lock bag. So buying a couple of 16-ounce bottles of water, or yogurt, is best left until after the security line. Otherwise, inspiration comes from hikers, campers, runners, cyclists and climbers — all of whom want nutrient-dense foods that take up little space and require no refrigeration. And nutrition experts say travelers could throw in a little extra to share with a testy seatmate or flight attendant.

For Ms. Taub-Dix, the standout travel food is peanut butter, whether on whole-grain bread and packed at home, or bought in Ā-ounce portions and used as a dip for crackers. "It's one food that feels like it's decadent, but it really is great, and very satisfying."

Ms. Clark agreed, saying that she packs two peanut butter sandwiches before every trip. "It's cheap and tasty. If it squishes, it's still edible — a nice security blanket."

Nutrition bars, once the domain of runners, are portable food and for some, can rival peanut butter in comfort, as long as they provide a balance of carbohydrate, protein and fat, Ms. Taub-Dix said. She had one stowed away for her Greek odyssey, along with a bag containing mixed nuts and dried fruit (her favorites are roasted almonds, cashews and dried apricots).

Other items in an emergency food kit can include processed cheese, dried meats (jerky-style products), popcorn, and trail mix. A traveler can add bits of almost any finger food to the basics of nuts and dried fruits: coconut, dry cereal, pretzels, even chocolate (plain or wrapped around nuts), which makes nearly everyone's list.

"Chocolate? I had some of that," said Ms. Gidus, recalling her trip to Greece in the first few months of her pregnancy. "It's one of those stress foods — it relaxes people, and it brings comfort, and it's high-energy as well."

Once the emergency food kit is assembled, add a few nonfood items: hand sanitizer (in the government-regulated tiny bottles), moist towelettes, travel-size board games and a deck of cards.

And if the time comes that tarmac-sitting is required, surviving the experience with dignity begins with a good attitude, and the discipline of rationing the resources. "Some people see food as an annoyance, or a pain," Ms. Clark said. "Get in the mindset that it's fuel, and people need fuel every four hours." That, she said, can make the difference.

For Ms. Taub-Dix, it did. "I bought a bottle of water. I had my snacks. I had my laptop. Food, clothing, shelter," she said, reciting a variation of Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of human needs. "I didn't have love, but I had my phone. And my BlackBerry. I was happy I was taken care of."

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