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Special Reports December 2015 Issue

Expert Tips for Nutrition-Smart Holiday Travel

Options have improved, but travelers still have to make informed choices.

If you're planning to join the holiday travel crush - or already looking ahead to 2016 vacations - there's good news about your eating options en route. "I actually think that airport choices are beginning to improve a bit, both in terms of take-out and sit-down options," says Jeanne Goldberg, PhD, professor at Tufts' Friedman School and director of the Nutrition Communication Program. "The onus is to choose among the better options."

Chains such as Starbucks and Au Bon Pain, found in most major airports, have added menu choices that won’t make you feel like you’ve ingested a 767. Local gourmet eateries have also focused on nutrition at the airport: At the nation’s busiest airport, Atlanta’s Hartsfield International, for example, kiosks from popular caterer Proof of the Pudding offer "gourmet fresh" sandwiches. Saladworks at O'Hare in Chicago serves customizable collections of fresh produce, all under 500 calories. CIBO Express at New York's LaGuardia serves roasted root-vegetable salads. Beyond grab and go food, at Boston’s Logan Airport, you can dine on grilled fish at local favorite Legal Sea Foods. Fish is also on the menu at the LAX outpost of gourmet seafood restaurant Gladstone’s, or you can opt for chicken chili at Lemonade.

"There has been a marked improvement from times past," says Alice H. Lichtenstein, DSc, director of Tufts' HNRCA Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory. "There are always fruit, fruit cups and fruit and yogurt cups available in the airports. Some places, such as the ubiquitous Starbucks, have veggie cups as well. Salads now tend to be mixed greens or romaine lettuce, and widely available. Healthier wraps are usually options."

IMAGE © THINKSTOCK

PLANNING PAYS: Wherever you're flying, if you’re unfamiliar with an airport and its offerings, it pays to plan ahead and check the airport map online to view your eating options during a layover. Also look at the online menus and nutrition facts of restaurants near your gates. Even among franchise restaurants, not all post nutrition info on site, so some web research is your best bet. Travel websites like Independent Traveler <www.independenttraveler.com> and Trip Advisor <www.tripadvisor.com> also serve up useful advice about eating on the go. Keep in mind, you usually have to do this only once; offerings don’t change so often that this approach would become a regular chore.

Informed ordering can make a big difference. For breakfast, you might pick Starbucks’ Classic Whole-Grain Oatmeal, Wheat Spinach Savory Foldover or Multigrain Bagel - all lower in calories and saturated fat and higher in fiber than the deceptively healthy-sounding Pumpkin Scone. Instead of an eponymous doughnut at Dunkin’ Donuts, you might discover the Multigrain Bagel (8 grams of fiber, 15 grams of protein) or Eggwhite Flatbread (280 calories, 15 grams protein). Remember, however, that even the best of these chain offerings tend to be high in sodium.

Think strategically when choosing, advises Diane L. McKay, PhD, an assistant professor at Tufts' Friedman School. "When faced with foods you would not normally eat - either at restaurants or airport cafes, etc. - I try to load up on more of what I would normally eat, like fruit" she says. "Sometimes you can find some healthier options where you would not normally look. For example, see if they offer toppings for hot/cold cereals; you might find nuts or dried fruit there. That, or even a little granola sprinkled on top of some fruit with milk will hold me until lunch."

For lunch or dinner, seek out sandwiches on whole-grain bread with lean fillings such as turkey, chicken or roasted veggies; go light on the condiments with mustard instead of mayo. "Or choose a salad and ask for the salad dressing on the side," suggests Nicola McKeown, PhD, associate professor and director of the Friedman School’s Nutritional Epidemiology Program. "Include some protein; it will help you feel fuller for longer." McDonald’s Premium Asian Salad with Grilled Chicken, for example, has 5 grams of fiber and 32 grams of protein, with only 270 calories.

Don’t overlook soup as an option. Au Bon Pain’s large Garden Vegetable Soup, for example, has just 110 calories, no saturated fat and a better than 5:1 carb/fiber ratio. (Again, however, like many of these choices, it’s high in sodium.)

Hummus is available at an increasing number of airports, too, usually paired with vegetables. Because of the protein and healthy fats in the chickpeas from which it’s made, hummus can help keep you from feeling hungry on a long flight.

You probably don’t need to be told that these are better options for airport eating than cinnamon buns, quarter-pound cheeseburgers or “stuffed-crust” pizzas. But you might be fooled by healthy-seeming items such as Au Bon Pain’s Roasted Vegetarian Harvest Hot Wrap, which despite its lack of meat manages to total 670 calories and 7 grams of saturated fat. Or McDonald’s Bacon, Cheese & Egg Bagel with Egg Whites, which actually has about the same calories and saturated fat as a Big Mac, and more sodium.

Next: Page 2: Do-It Yourself Meals and In-Flight Options

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