What Nutritionists Say You Should — and Shouldn’t — Eat at the Airport
You just might feel better after your flight if you eat these healthy picks before.
This article originally appeared on Health.com.
Airport terminals are like a giant impulse aisle, full of temptations you may usually resist, whether it's glossy gossip mags or salty snacks. Even if you're traveling for business, it can be easy to adopt a vacation-mode mentality, dropping your usual healthy eating habits or over-eating out of boredom or travel anxiety.
That'll probably lead to regrets later in the day: Opting for unhealthy snacks can result in GI upset or feeling hangry thanks, sugar crash), points out Ginger Hultin, RDN, a Seattle-based Arivale coach. "Keep in mind how you want to feel in the long-term: tired and cranky or energetic and alert? Snacking at the airport can greatly affect the experience you’ll have on the flight and on your trip," Hultin says.
Fortunately, there are plenty of good-for-you eats available at airports these days. We spoke to nutrition experts to find out which foods they eat before a flight—and which ones they avoid at all costs.
Snacks from home
Unless you're craving soup or a smoothie, you can easily bring food through security—and nutritionists think that’s a really smart option. "Even if I can't pack a whole meal, I like to at least bring some snacks to tide me over. These often include snap peas (fresh and crunchy), mandarins (easy to peel and hydrating), raw nuts (good protein and healthy fats), or homemade trail mix with whole grain popcorn, raw almonds, and no-sugar-added dried fruit,” says Autumn Ehsaei, RDN.
"As someone who gets hangry, I try not to let myself wait too long without eating,” says Sara Glanz, RD, a travel dietitian for Dietitians on Demand. “My go-to choices are home-made peanut butter sandwich crackers or trail mix. This helps me avoid unhealthy (and pricey!) airport food altogether."
Fruit and vegetables
Even at a small terminal, you're likely to spot a mound of apples or a basket of bananas beside a cash register somewhere. “I always try to seek out fresh fruits or vegetables at the airport because it gives me a little boost of fiber, water content, and helps me feel energized, not weighed down, before I board,” says Ehsaei.
Bonus: If you can find fruit like apples, pears, clementines, or blueberries, you can also calm a sweet tooth, says Rachel Daniels, director of nutrition for Virtual Health Partners.
“Fresh cut up fruit is also a great option, but it may be challenging to know how fresh the fruit is [until] you dig in,” says Susan Weiner, RDN, owner of Susan Weiner Nutrition.
If you eat a yogurt for breakfast or snacks on ordinary days, keep up the practice while you’re traveling. “If I don't have time for breakfast before the airport or if it is just too early I will grab a plain Greek yogurt from [an airport market] and have it with a banana. Ideally the yogurt will be full fat for satiety and metabolism, but if nonfat is my only option, I will grab a small bag of raw nuts or a nut butter packet for some healthy fat,” says Sydney Greene, RD, at Middleberg Nutrition.
Be choosy, though, about which container you grab–if you can. Yogurt is often sweetened, points out Libby Mills, RD, with Villanova University M. Louise Fitzpatrick College of Nursing’s MacDonald Center for Obesity Prevention and Education. That makes it easy for the calories to add up quickly, transforming a healthy airport snack into a calorie bomb. “A cup of yogurt and half-cup of fruit can be around 300 calories. Add granola, and the caloric cost can go up another 100 calories for a quarter cup. A tablespoon of nuts, and you can add on another 50 calories," warns Mills.
Craving a bit of indulgence? Stay away from the rainbow of candy packages, and indulge instead in chocolate—the darker, the better. Keith-Thomas Ayoob, EdD, RDN, an associate clinical professor emeritus at the department of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine aims for 70% to 80% cocoa. “Dark chocolate is loaded with antioxidants and, while it's not (yet) a ‘health food,’ an ounce only has about 160 calories and it's very satisfying,” he says. (Chocolate makes our list of 10 antioxidant-rich foods you should be eating.)
Remember to keep portion size in mind, says Daniels. “No one needs a king-size of any snack.”
If you're both hungry and thirsty, opt for a smoothie, suggests Claire Martin, RD, co-founder of Being Healthfull. It'll satisfy both needs without too many calories, and they're usually easy enough to find at airports.
“The key to keeping this treat healthy is looking at the smoothie ingredients carefully,” says naturopathic doctor Luisa Szakacs of Marpé Nutrition. Opt for ones without added proprietary “smoothie blends,” she recommends, since those may contain unnatural ingredients. With bottled smoothies or juices, follow the same advice and review ingredients before purchase. “I usually just check the ingredients, and mostly look for foods I recognize, and steer clear away from ‘natural flavorings,’” says Szakacs.
Nuts and seeds
Readily available in pre-portioned bags, nuts and seeds provide protein, healthy fat, and fiber, making them a great option for airport eating—with a few caveats.
“Just be aware, if you are watching your sodium intake, to try unsalted," says Amanda Markie, RDN, an outpatient dietitian at the University of Maryland Baltimore Washington Medical Center. "Also, portion control is important with nuts. Nuts are full of healthy fats that can be part of a balanced diet, but those fats do also mean nuts can be high in calories.”
Read the label and check the portion size before purchasing nuts and seeds, so you don’t accidentally chow down on three servings in five minutes.
Jennifer Weare, a registered holistic nutritionist, recommends looking for good quality proteins—like hard-boiled eggs, roasted chicken, and hummus—and eating them alongside healthy fats like nuts and seeds. “These items will help keep you feeling full and satisfied, which will decrease your chances of reaching for the junk,” says Weare.
Sandwiches can be a smart bet too. "On long travel days, I have been known to buy a grilled chicken sandwich or turkey burger to have a good balance of lean protein and carbs," says Glanz. Be smart about your protein selection though: “Skip the mayo-laden chicken or tuna salad and seek out options such as turkey or veggie/hummus, if available," says holistic nutritionist Jessica Waller.
Nearly every airport coffee shop has oatmeal available. “This is another guilt-free light meal or snack, high in fiber and potassium,” says Martin. “You may need to stay in a sitting position on a long flight and some people may experience digestive discomfort due to the limited movement. Oatmeal's fiber content can help regulate your digestion.” Add a banana, and you’ll stay “comfortably full” for at least a few hours, she adds.
Snack or protein bars
You’ll find a lot of these at the airport, but be choosy. They’re often loaded with sugar and processed ingredients, says Ali Tager, nutritionist and health coach for The Institute for Integrative Nutrition. “Try to find a bar with under 10 grams of sugar and the lowest number of ingredients,” she says.
“When I’m buying a bar, I try to find something with just nuts and seeds and natural sweetener, or something made with organic meat and vegetables rather than something with different powders and ingredients I can’t even pronounce," says doctor of natural medicine Josh Axe, founder of DrAxe.com.
On the more meal-like side of the spectrum, salads are a strong contender for the healthiest airport option. Stop somewhere you can craft your own salad, if available, Axe suggests. That can help you avoid the unexpected calories of pre-packaged or restaurant salads drenched in creamy dressing or loaded with crunchy noodles, says Weiner. “Try to get your salad built on veggies, topped with protein (such as grilled chicken), with beans and your dressing on the side,” she recommends.
Yes, we know–water isn't a food. But every nutritionist we spoke to recommended guzzling it, since flying is dehydrating. "Start your day with a bunch of water, buy a water bottle (or bring a reusable one) once through security to fill up at fountains, and try to stick with water while on the plane," says Ehsaei.
What to avoid: Unfamiliar foods
Along with ideas for nutritious snacks and meals, the experts we spoke to had a lot of advice on what to stay far, far away from.
Eating anything that your body is unfamiliar with can cause an unpleasant shock to your system. “If you don't typically eat heavy, greasy foods, now might not be the best time for a burger,” says Ehsaei. “Likewise, if fiber isn't a regular part of your diet, maybe don't eat something full of vegetables and very fibrous right before you board. Stick to things that you know your body is used to, that make you feel good, and that are easy to digest for you.”
As bad as food poisoning is on land, it's exponentially worse on a crowded plane at cruising altitude. “I’ve had food poisoning on a plane before, and it’s not something that I would wish upon anyone,” says Edwina Clark, RD, head of nutrition and wellness at Yummly. Since that experience, Clark is careful about what she eats before and during flights. Some foods to avoid: buffets, mayo-based or creamy salads, and raw seafood (like sushi or poke).
Flying is dehydrating and can leave you feeling puffy and bloated. Salt only compounds that problem, says Ehsaei. (That’s why you should go for the unsalted nuts!) Avoid salt-heavy snacks. “Chips and crackers are very simple carbohydrates that are high in fat as well and can cause gastrointestinal upset in some people,” says Hultin.
Hultin describes candy as “a nightmare for healthy travels.” You’ll get an initial jolt of energy, but the inevitable crash will leave you feeling irritable and low energy. Of course, candy’s not the only place where you’ll find excessive sugar: Read the labels of any drink and snack you’re considering buying, says Jamie Johnson, RDN. Look specifically at the added sugar count–and avoid anything with more than 10 grams of the sweet stuff, Johnson says.