Fat Birds Don’t Fly

by Charles Platkin, PhD

It’s that lack of planning that costs us when it comes to weight control. To make matters worse, airlines rarely provide meals these days, and because of tightened security, we’re spending more time in airports where most food choices aren’t conducive to healthy eating.

So, if we travel just five times a year and overeat by 2,800 calories each round trip (some pizza, a few sodas, a candy bar or peanuts) — that’s more than four pounds gained every year. It adds up.

“Americans may think healthy and low calorie, but most of the time when they’re traveling, it’s a ‘let’s-splurge’ mentality,” says Larry Meltzer, spokesman for LSG Sky Chefs, one of the leading food service providers for most of the major airlines.

If you want to make sure you’re not the one overloading the plane, here are a few tips:

It seems like common sense to bring your own food so you don’t get hungry. But people think they can make it without food, especially on short flights. Then, when they end up getting hungry, they gobble the first doughnut or croissant they’re offered. If you are carrying your own food, it’s important to know that due to cabin pressure, the actual flavor of food changes and your tastebuds are dulled.

“That’s why food has to be prepared differently for in-flight service,” explains Meltzer.

If you add a bit more flavoring than normal, you should be fine.

Food should be easy to carry, easy to reseal, hard to spill and shouldn’t require refrigeration.

Even if you ate before you left home, you are still going to get hungry. We often underestimate the amount of time a trip can take. A two-hour flight could mean four or five hours of travel.

“Travelers can take items from home, pick up food at a take-out restaurant or avail themselves of the various options in airport terminals,” advises Meltzer.

Here are some ideas of what to bring:

  • Water: Dehydration can cause or exacerbate hunger, jet lag and fatigue.
  • Cereal: Kashi (a variety of healthy versions) or Cheerios are both low-calorie choices that are portable.
  • Beef jerky: Especially if you’re a low-carb fan — but not if you’re watching your sodium.
  • Fruit: Apples, pears and grapes are durable, and almost anything can be stored in a container.
  • Rice cakes: Be selective, since calorie and fat content vary widely.
  • Energy bars: Although they tend to be high in calories and fat, they often are better than a slice of pizza or a candy bar at the airport.
  • Non-fat yogurt: Yogurt is a great portable snack (although it is perishable). You could pack it in an insulated bag or take a small cooler, but understand that this can be counted against carry-on bag limitations.
  • Sandwiches: Pre-cut them into portion-controlled sections so you can pull them out at different times during the trip without making a mess. Chicken, turkey, cold cuts and cheese (on 100 percent whole wheat bread) are all great options for sandwiches on the go.
  • Soy chips: These are yet another portable, low-cal, high-fiber snack.

What happens when you get to the airport, you’re hungry, and you have no food with you? Today most airport eateries have some healthy alternatives, including salads and burgers without buns or fattening condiments. Do your homework before you get to the terminal.

Most airports have websites that list restaurants in each terminal so you can decide in advance where you’ll eat. If you don’t want to do the research, find a place with salads. Most are pretty healthy and low in calories, but beware of the dressing. With sandwiches, get in the habit of asking, “Does this have mayo or any spread on it?” Mayo seems to sneak in everywhere these days, and at 100 calories per tablespoon, leaving it out is an easy way to save calories.

According to concession stand manager Susan Bush, JFK Airport in New York City requires all terminal food service operators to provide take-out service. Try a take-away salad with dressing on the side, sushi or a sandwich (with the unhealthy condiments on the side), all of which can be stored in your carry-on bag.

Just recently, I arrived at JFK Airport at six a.m. without breakfast. I went up to the food court and asked if they could make an egg white omelet using a cooking spray. I was shocked that the answer was yes. Ask for healthy food; you might be surprised.

Many airlines have eliminated complimentary food service for coach flights under four hours and have started “buy-on-board” programs.

“Most major airlines have food available for purchase, and as a result, the options are more appealing,” said Sky Chefs spokesman Meltzer. “They are typically from name-brand eateries such as TGI Friday’s, Au Bon Pain, Wolfgang Puck or Einstein Brothers.”

Unfortunately, the specific nutrition information (calories, fat, carbs, etc.) has not been analyzed, so you’ll have to use good judgment. Since all these foods are made especially for in-flight service, a lot of the unhealthy stuff — for instance, extra mayo, high fat dressings, butter and other high-calorie items — comes on the side. Use these sparingly.

Delta offers a variety of food for sale, including a fruit salad with yogurt in the morning.

“A particular favorite of the low-carb crowd is our turkey on a bagel — except they leave the bagel behind,” said Peggy Estes, spokeswoman for Delta. “It’s one of our best sellers.”

Delta also offers a reduced-carb turkey wrap made with 99 percent fat-free smoked turkey. Fortunately the honey-mustard dressing is served on the side. US Airways also has healthy fare, and the ingredients are available on its website.

United Airlines even sells Atkins nutritional bars, and its Au Bon Pain meals have nutrition information on the packaging. United is also one of the few airlines that offers a light salad dressing. Unfortunately, American Airlines rarely has on-board food to purchase — so if you forget to pack a meal, assume you will be hungry unless a small package of pretzels will fill you up.


Request a special, low-calorie meal ahead of time. If not available, ask which meal comes with salad. Request this at the time you purchase your ticket (even if it’s an E-ticket) or call ahead.

Learn to recognize the healthy (or least unhealthy) option. Tune your ear to these healthy cooking terms: roasted, baked, grilled, broiled and steamed. And beware of these terms: fried, stir-fried, sauteed, alfredo and creamy.

Skip the butter and mayo. One tablespoon of butter is about 100 calories of fat.

Beware of salad dressing. If your meal comes with the standard thick, creamy, high-fat dressing, ask for a low-fat or fat-free alternative. Or ask for fresh lemon. If you’re really organized, you can even bring along your own packets of low-fat dressing.

Leave the dessert. Lots of calories and fat lurk in those small packages — and they never taste good anyway. Dig into your packed snacks instead and grab a piece of fruit.

Dump your tray ASAP. The longer it sits in front of you, the more likely you’ll be to pick at the leftovers like that dry brownie.

Avoid beverage cart calorie traps. A couple of mixed drinks, beers, glasses of wine or sodas provide few nutrients and about 300 calories. Plus, alcohol and caffeine are dehydrating, which is the last thing you need when flying. Stick to low-calorie, hydrating beverages.


Rate this post

You may also like

Subscribe To The Weekly Food & Nutrition News and Research Digest
Our weekly email news and research digest is everything you need to know about food, nutrition, fitness and health.
No Thanks
Thanks for signing up. You must confirm your email address before we can send you. Please check your email and follow the instructions.
We respect your privacy. Your information is safe and will NEVER be shared.
Don't miss out. Subscribe today.