Heart-healthy foods don’t exactly dominate the menu at the airport, where fast-food restaurants dominate and giant cinnamon rolls tempt.
What does a health-conscious traveler eat at the airport? 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 airlines run into logistical problems.
Then airport restaurants have an enthusiastic audience for foods that are easy and delicious to eat but are also high in fat, salt and sugar. Cardiologists know the temptation all too well.
Dr. Susan Cheng, professor of cardiology and director of public health research at the Smidt Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, was at an airport recently when a cake display caught her attention.
“It was huge slices of all these lush, rich-looking cakes with different flavors,” Cheng tells TODAY.com. “It was a beautiful display, but I don’t think I really want cake for lunch.”
“Eating healthy, wherever you are, regardless of the circumstances, is probably your best choice,” adds Dr. Andrew Freeman, director of cardiovascular prevention and wellness at National Jewish Health in Denver, added.
“If you are staying at the airport longer than 24 or 48 hours, you have to get creative.”
Knowing what they know about heart health, what do cardiologists eat when stuck at the airport? Three heart doctors offered their routines
Foods Cardiologists Eat at the Airport:
Snacks from home
The best strategy is to be prepared.
“As much as you’re completely trapped at the airport, that doesn’t mean you can’t bring your own food,” says Freeman.
He packs apples or oranges, which are surprisingly filling and fit in a backpack, as well as portable peanut butter packets for a little extra protein. Freeman also sometimes goes to places where he can make his own salad and brings it to the airport.
Sandwich shop options
Cheng recently found a simple, nutritious tuna salad sandwich at an airport that she described as “perfect.”
Freeman, who doesn’t eat meat, likes to order a vegetarian sub without cheese or mayonnaise. “Sometimes there’s a little avocado or hummus on the sandwich, which is surprisingly good,” he says.
The goal is to find good foods that keep you full, says Dr. Marc Eisenberg, clinical cardiologist and associate professor of medicine at Columbia University Medical Center in New York.
“The best thing you can eat is something like an omelet if you can find a restaurant there,” says Eisenberg, co-author of “Am I Dying?!: A Complete Guide to Your Symptoms – and What to Do Next.” “, told TODAY. com.
“I think eggs are definitely a safe bet when you’re at the airport.”
Eggs contain protein, vitamins, antioxidants and healthy fats, nutritionists say. They haven’t been shown to raise cholesterol levels in many people, Eisenberg adds. However, he urges travelers to avoid butter, which he calls one of the “worst foods,” and watch their salt intake.
The coffee chain typically offers oatmeal, which Freeman says is a great breakfast choice.
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.
Cheng might take a small bag of nuts, a fruit-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 often also carry fresh fruit, fruit cups or salads, Freeman adds.
“Most airports have a Mexican option, and the truth is that you can almost always get tacos or a rice bowl, usually with things like brown rice, vegetables, beans and salsa, without meat, cheese and sour cream,” says Freeman.
A la carte in the steakhouse
There is also a steakhouse at most airports, but travelers do not have to stick to the menu. “Tell them you want a plain baked potato and green beans without butter,” advises Freeman. “They may look at you strangely, but it’s actually a surprisingly easy thing for them to do for you.”
Foods cardiologists avoid at the airport:
Fast food and the huge cinnamon rolls
Hamburgers, fries and other foods full of saturated fat, salt, cholesterol, carbohydrates or sugar are at the top of the list. According to the company, a Cinnabon Classic Roll has 880 calories.
However, pizza is probably a better option than a hamburger at one of the fast food restaurants, says Eisenberg.
“If you take a salad and add beef or pork or chicken and ranch dressing and all these things that people like to put on their salads, it’ll turn into a double cheeseburger real quick,” warns Freeman.
“Often, when prepared the standard American way, a salad can contain more calories, saturated fat and cholesterol than the cheeseburger itself.”
Food from vending machines
Freeman is always wary of a vending machine’s capabilities: “I tell my patients, the longer the shelf life, the shorter your lifespan.”
In general, eating bad food for a day or two probably won’t hurt most healthy people – if that’s the only option available. However, travelers with heart failure, high blood pressure or diabetes need to be more careful, says Eisenberg.
But there is a difference between what people do every day and what they do at certain times, such as when traveling for Thanksgiving, he adds.
“If you’re stuck at the airport, perhaps with kids, and need something to lighten the mood and gain some patience and time, do whatever it takes,” Cheng adds.
“But in general, I would recommend that patients stick to what they know is good for their health,” she advises.