Have a trip coming up? Let’s talk about why the food you eat when traveling matters!
When you are going to the airport, you may be so preoccupied with making the flight, checking bags, and getting through security that the last thing on your mind is food. We get it, an airport is stressful, and as a result, when you are at the gate or on the plane, your food choices may not be the healthiest. In this post, we are diving into why thinking about the food you eat at the airport is important, provide healthy meal ideas and snacks that you can bring or find at the airport, and suggest foods to limit.
Why the food you eat when flying matters
You may be inclined to grab the first thing in sight while running to your gate, or maybe you have some time before your flight and are tempted to have a couple of drinks. The truth is the airport (can be a tricky place to find healthy things to eat and drink, especially since your body may feel the effects of foods to a greater extent due to the change in environment when flying. Three things we find super relevant when traveling are blood-sugar balance, dehydration, and bloating.
Eating to support blood-sugar balance is always important; however, it is arguably even more critical when traveling. To keep things simple, when you eat a meal concentrated in carbohydrates and sugars without balancing it with protein, fat, and fiber, it results in a spike in your blood sugar, consequently leaving you feeling hungry soon after you eat. In contrast, when you eat a meal balanced with protein, fat, and fiber, your blood sugar levels are much steadier, leaving you to feel satiated for longer. So why does this matter so much in the airport or on an airplane? Well, food options tend to be limited. Therefore, if you are feeling ravenous, you are more likely to grab any food offered without thinking twice about it. Furthermore, given the snacks often offered on planes, it is likely that they are primarily composed of carbohydrates and contain minimal protein, fat, and fiber. This results in the whole cycle starting again, where you are likely to become hungry soon after eating and reach for yet another snack that lacks nutrient density. Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of why it is important to have a balanced meal/snack before/during flying so you can feel full and satisfied, combatting the temptation to grab a non-nutritious snack.
Have you ever noticed that your face feels puffy or your stomach feels bloated after flying on a plane? Well, you are not alone! Feeling puffy after a flight is multifactorial, ranging from dehydration, lack of movement, sleep, etc. Feeling dehydrated after a flight is common because the humidity in airplanes is significantly lower than the outside environment you are used to. Additionally, many people stray from their normal hydration habits and increase their consumption of packaged salty foods. To help combat this, we suggest drinking a TON of water and eating water-rich fruits and veggies (think: clementines/oranges, and celery).
On the other hand, flying may increase abdominal bloating primarily due to the drop in cabin pressure, consequently affecting the gasses in your digestive system to expand, leaving you feeling more bloated and uncomfortable than normal. To try and mitigate this, we suggest avoiding a heavy meal right before a flight and eating foods that are familiar to your body. It’s also best to stay away from carbonated drinks. We discuss more foods we recommend incorporating when flying below!
Foods to pack or look out for in the airport
Maybe, you have time to pack some food for the airport and are wondering what you should make. Or, maybe you have a list of errands to run and do not have time to prepare or buy food. Either way, the foods we recommend eating are similar. Luckily, the food options at most airports have improved over the years, making it easier to find a healthy option. However, sometimes eating healthy at the airport takes a bit of creativity. In general, when packing or buying meals/ snacks, we look for foods that will be satisfying and filling, which likely means they contain protein, fat, and/or fiber.
Foods to pack or look for at the airport:
- Greek Yogurt – This is a staple in most airports! Try to find one that is unsweetened. Then, add fruit (banana, cut-up prepared fruit, whatever is available) and some nuts and seeds.
- Oatmeal – Oatmeal can be a yummy and easy way to fill up in the airport. Beware of added sugars, but do not stress if you cannot find one without them! Make sure to pair it with nut butter or nut/seed mix to help stabilize blood sugar and keep you full!
- Hard Boiled eggs – This may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is a great way to ensure you are getting protein and fat and have none of the additives found in other processed protein sources.
- Homemade/Premade salads – Choose one with a protein (hard-boiled eggs, grilled chicken, legumes), and opt for the dressing on the side if possible. If it contains dried fruit (like cranberries), we suggest removing half as they are high in sugar!
- Homemade/premade – Quinoa grain bowl with avocado and veggies of choice (option to add protein)
- Beef Jerky – Try to look for a healthier brand like epic bars, chomps, country archer, paleo valley (look for grass-fed), but if you cannot find it no worries. This can be a quick and easy source of protein. Be sure to pair it with water as they tend to be a bit high in salt.
- Fruit – Any fresh fruit will do! Airports tend to have bananas and pre-cut fruit in the fridges. Try pairing with greek yogurt, nuts/seeds, or nut butter (often found in single packets) to help balance blood sugar and keep you full.
- Veggies – This may be a bit harder to find! If you are in a rush, try looking for some sort of pre-packaged celery/carrot and hummus or nut-butter combo. Don’t forget green juices!
- Nut/seed bars – Think: Kind, 88 Acre, GoMacro, and Rx bars. Check the back to make sure there are at least 8-10 grams of protein, some fat, and minimal added sugars.
- Mixed nuts/seeds – Try to find lightly salted if possible, but do not sweat it if you can’t find them. They are a good source of protein and healthy fat! Make sure to drink extra water.
- Refillable water bottle- Many airports have a water filter fountain you can use to fill your own bottle. This can save you some money if you plan ahead. I like to bring my 32-40 oz bottle to fill at the airport.
Although it can be tricky to find these foods in the airport, more often than not, they are there, but they may not be presented together. Think about pairing foods together so they are a good source of protein, fat, and fiber, and you will be good to go!
Eating at food vendors
Let us be real, as convenient as the pre-packaged meals and snacks are, sometimes we want a proper meal. Often, the food vendors/restaurants in airports are less than ideal, with most of them being fast-food chains. However, just because it is a fast-food operation does not mean you have to rule it out entirely. Read below for our tips and hacks to eating at fast-food vendors, as well as which ones we suggest looking out for!
Our top tips for eating at fast-food vendors:
- Go bunless! – Ordering a grilled chicken sandwich or burger can be a great and filling way to get protein in. Skip the bun for a healthier option. If possible, add a side salad or ask for extra lettuce and tomato
- Look for salads! Make sure to add a protein if there is not one and ask for dressing on the side so you can be in control of how much you want on there (we recommend asking for olive oil and lemon when possible to avoid inflammatory oils in pre-packaged dressing)
- At Chipotle: Opt for a salad bowl, with chicken, beans, fajita veggies, romaine, salsa of choice (and if you are like me and cannot imagine Chipotle without the guacamole ask them for a small amount or a side of it!)
- At Starbucks: Starbucks has quite a few options! Look for their egg white bites, spinach and feta wrap, protein boxes, or oatmeal (ask for fresh fruit in place of dried). Beware of their sugary drinks! Stick to the basics here!
- At Dunkin: Skip out on the donuts! Instead, look at their wrap options which tend to contain eggs/egg whites, and scramble bowls.
Again, the key here is to get creative and scope out your options. Just do your best – do not stress out looking for the perfect healthy meal!
Foods to avoid in the airport
Given the number of fast-food restaurants and pre-packaged foods in airports, it can be easier to find foods you should limit versus focusing on. When flying, the last thing you want is to feel hungry, bloated, or just feel blah. To help avoid these feelings, we recommend steering clear of fried and greasy foods, salty foods, carbohydrate-heavy meals, and sugar-filled snacks and beverages. It may also be best to avoid alcoholic beverages when flying, not only do they dehydrate you and leave you feeling puffy, but they can lead to mindless snacking and consuming extra calories.
When preparing foods to eat when traveling or buying foods in the airport, do the best you can with what is available. In general, we suggest focusing on food and ingredients you recognize to minimize digestive distress! The simpler, the better! Foods to look for include protein, healthy fat, and fiber to keep blood sugar stable and hunger at bay! Lastly, do not forget to hydrate!
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Written by Alison Richman MS, RDN