A Frequent Flier's Guide to Airport Eating

Think feeling crappy on a plane is inevitable? Think again. What you eat pre-flight could mean the difference between winning your away race and spending the trip in bed nursing NyQuil.

Dec 5, 2014
Outside Magazine

At airport food purveyors, your best bets are high-fiber, cholesterol-free dishes.    Photo: Spencer Davis/Flickr

Fear of getting sick on a plane isn’t unfounded. In 2004, The Journal of Environmental Health Research found that frequent fliers had a higher rate of catching colds than the general population.

That's one reason to pay attention to the 2014 Airport Food Review, released today. Organized by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, the research ranks the nation’s healthiest airports. But more useful than the list are the types of foods that make a smart, cold-fighting pre-flight meal.

First, the results: 23 of America’s 30 busiest airports have restaurants that serve at least one healthy entree. The winner? Baltimore/Washington International Airport where 92 percent of restaurants serve at least one dish that met the survey standards.

The losers? As a whole, most airports in the South—Dallas/Fort Worth (67 percent), Orlando (66 percent), Houston (65 percent) and ATL (52 percent) bottomed out the list. “There were healthful options in the South, but they have so many steakhouses and BBQ joints that it brought the scores down,” Dr. Susan Levin, director of Nutritional Education at PCRM, says.

Here’s where it gets interesting: a restaurant qualifies as "healthy" so long as it serves at least one high-fiber, cholesterol-free menu item including two of the following: fruit, vegetables, whole grains, or legumes. It’s easy to undermine the PCRM’s metric (just ask our Paleo readers), but that’s beside the point. Eating well when traveling will help you stay fresh for arrival, says Cameron Wells, a staff dietician at PCRM. And you aren’t as dependent on the airport’s food options as you think you are. It’s not where you order the food, but how you order that counts.

Flee from Fat

Even avowed carnivores should carefully consider ordering off the vegetarian menu (or choosing lean meat options) when flying. It’s not the protein that’s the problem. Because you're just sitting there, blood circulation slows during a flight and meals high in fat and cholesterol can stagnate it even more, leaving you fatigued. Plant-based foods high in fiber help increase blood flow, says Wells, who also notes that fruits and veggies also contain vitamins and minerals that can help stave off a cold. Just steer clear of stir-fried and sautéed veggies, which can be just as bad as fatty meats. 

Skip the Salt and Toppings

Because of the lower pressure in the cabin and few chances to move around and get your blood flowing, feet tend to swell during a flight. Salt will only exacerbate the issue, says Dr. Wells. And choose your toppings carefully. While Mexican food can make a great pre-flight meal, overloading on the cheese and sour cream will weigh you down, says Dr. Levin.

Make the Water Bottle Your Best Friend

Planes are extremely dry places and the loss of hydration can lead to headaches and fatigue, says Dr. Levin. Your solution? Drink 12 ounces of water for every half hour you’re on the plane. To hit that mark, you’ll need to drink 15 cups of water from the typical four-ounce cups provided by the airlines. So bring a refillable water bottle, and, er, choose an aisle seat.

Rethink Fast Food

Most chains now offer healthy options, if you know how to order. Take McDonald's. Their oatmeal bowls come with fruits and nuts and make for a great breakfast if you leave off the cream and brown sugar. And Starbucks now offers portable options that are actually filling, such as a brown rice, kale, and vegetables salads. 

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