Heart-healthy food doesn’t exactly dominate the airport menu, where fast food restaurants rule and giant cinnamon buns beckon.
So what’s the health-conscious traveler stuck at the airport to eat? Nearly 5 million people will fly over the Thanksgiving holiday in 2023, AAA predicts. Many will face flight delays and cancellations if the weather doesn’t cooperate or the airlines run into logistical problems.
Then airport restaurants have a captive audience for food that is easy and delicious to eat, but also full of fat, salt and sugar. Cardiologists know the temptation well.
Dr. Susan Cheng, professor of cardiology and director of public health research at the Smith Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, was at an airport recently when a cake display caught her eye.
It was huge slices of all these lush, rich cakes with different flavors, Cheng tells TODAI.com. It was a beautiful display, but I don’t think I really want cake for lunch.
Eating healthy wherever you are, regardless of your circumstances, is really probably your best bet, adds Dr. Andrew Freeman, director of cardiovascular prevention and wellness at National Jewish Health in Denver.
If you’re going to be at the airport for more than 24 or 48 hours, you’ll need to get creative.
Knowing what they know about heart health, what do cardiologists eat when they’re stuck at the airport? Three heart doctors offered their routines
Food cardiologists eat at the airport:
Snacks from home
The best strategy is to come prepared.
As much as you’re absolutely stranded at the airport, that doesn’t mean you can’t bring your own food, Freeman says.
Packs apples or oranges, which are surprisingly filling and fit in a backpack, plus portable packets of peanut butter for a little extra protein. Freeman sometimes also goes to places where he can make his own salad and bring it to the airport.
Sandwich shop options
Cheng recently found a simple, nutritious tuna salad sandwich at the airport that she called perfect.
Freeman, who doesn’t eat meat, likes to order vegetables without cheese and mayo. Sometimes they have some avocado or hummus on the sandwich, which is surprisingly good, he says.
The goal is to find good foods that will keep you full, says Mark Eisenberg, MD, a clinical cardiologist and associate professor of medicine at Columbia University Medical Center in New York.
The best thing to eat is something like an omelet if you can find a restaurant there, says Eisenberg, co-author of Am I Dying?!: The Complete Guide to Your Symptoms—And What to Do Next, says TODAI.com.
I think eggs are definitely a safe bet when you’re at the airport.
Eggs contain proteins, vitamins, antioxidants and healthy fats, say nutritionists. They haven’t been shown to raise cholesterol in many people, Eisenberg adds. But he urges travelers to skip any butter, which he calls one of the worst foods, and watch their salt intake.
The coffee chain usually has oatmeal available, which is a great breakfast option, notes Freeman.
He also likes to order drinks without dairy or added sweeteners; a bagel that can be topped with hummus or guacamole; or a plant-based protein box with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Starbucks also often has a basket of bananas, which are extremely nutritious and healthy because of their fiber and potassium, Cheng adds.
Grab and go food store
Cheng might grab a small bag of nuts, a fruit and nut bar, or a small container of yogurt. Yogurt is good for the gut microbiome, but it’s important to watch the sugar content, she advises.
These stores also often have fresh fruit, fruit cups or salads, Freeman adds.
Most airports have a Mexican option, and the truth is, you can almost always get tacos or a rice bowl, usually with things like brown rice, veggies and beans and salsa, without the meat and cheese and sour cream pretty easily, Freeman says.
A la carte in the steakhouse
Most airports also have steakhouses, but travelers don’t have to stick to the menu. Tell them you want plain baked potatoes and green beans without butter, Freeman advises. They might look at you strangely, but it’s actually surprisingly easy for them to do this for you.
Foods cardiologists avoid at the airport:
Fast food and huge cinnamon buns
Hamburgers, French fries and other foods full of saturated fat, salt, cholesterol, carbohydrates or sugar are at the top of the list. A Cinnabon Classic Roll has 880 calories, according to the company.
Pizza, however, is probably a better option than a hamburger at a fast-food joint, Eisenberg says.
When you take a salad and you put beef or pork or chicken and ranch dressing and all these things that people like to put on their salads, it turns into a double cheeseburger very quickly, warns Freeman.
Many times, a salad, when prepared in the typical American way, can have more calories, saturated fat and cholesterol than the cheeseburger itself.
Food vending machine
Freeman is always wary of the options in the vending machines: I tell my patients: The longer the expiration date, the shorter your life.
In general, a day or two of eating junk food, if that’s the only option available, probably won’t harm most healthy people, although travelers with heart failure, high blood pressure or diabetes need to be more careful, Eisenberg says.
But there’s a difference between what people do on a daily basis and what they do at specific times, such as traveling during Thanksgiving, he adds.
If you’re stuck at an airport, perhaps with kids, and need something to lighten your mood and buy some patience and time, do what you need to do, Cheng adds.
But in general, I would recommend that patients stick to what they know is good for their health, she advises.
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