Flight Food: Eating Right While on the Fly

Airplane food has always gotten a bad rap, more for the lack of taste than the lack of nutritional value.

As this holiday season rolls around, many of us will be traveling and will have no choice but to grab a quick bite at the airport between connections, or settle for a snack on the plane. Hey, we all have to eat!

But when a calorie-packed holiday meal is awaiting you at your destination, staying healthy and avoiding holiday weight gain at this time of year means paying attention to what you're eating "on the fly."

Most airlines today have cut out the standard breakfast, lunch or dinner entrées in lieu of a free snack or a purchased ‘snack pack.’ While a snack is not a healthy replacement for a good dinner, it does tend to take the edge off when you don’t have time for a nutritious meal. During holiday travel, as you rush to catch flights, chances are you’ll sacrifice eating healthy for the sake of time. But what you don’t know about airplane food might raise an eyebrow or two. By arming yourself with the nutritional information in airplane foods, you’ll be able to make healthier food choices even when those options are limited to what's available at 35,000 feet.

According to the Airline Transportation Association (ATA), approximately 24 million passengers will travel over the 12-day Thanksgiving period. Not all of these 24 million people will make healthy eating choices while traveling, but that's likely because most do not really know the difference between their best and worst choices for snacks.

Charles Stuart, a nutrition expert also known as the Diet Detective, conducted an in-depth analysis of the snacks offered by some of the major airlines in the United States, unearthing such information as how long it would take you to exercise off the calories of chosen snacks. Stuart’s analysis reveals the following ‘best bets’ for snack choices on the following airlines:

American Airlines:

Snack Pack contains meat, nuts, cheese, raisins, cookies and Goldfish crackers. The meat, nuts, cheese and raisins provide enough protein and fat to satisfy your hunger, but get rid of the cookie and the Goldfish!

Total Calories: 710

Breakfast Muffin: 440/420 calories.

Best bet? Skip the breakfast muffin unless there is no other choice, preferably split it with your seatmate.

Exercise equivalent: 183 minutes of walking for the snack pack, 108 minutes for the muffin.

Delta Airlines:

Snack Pack contains Frito Lay corn chips, granola bar, peanuts, cookies and peanut butter crackers.

Although not much nutritional information was provided from this airline, the report did state that you’ll still be hungry after eating their entire snack pack!

Total Calories: 766

Best Bet? Keep the granola bar and the peanuts, dump the rest!

Exercise equivalent: 197 minutes.

United Airlines:

"Smart Pack" contains fruit and granola, organic peach applesauce, cheese, multigrain pita and honey crackers, strawberry preserves, Bali’s Late candy, Emer’gen-C tangerine-flavored Fizzing drink mix. This option is perfect for sharing.

Total Calories: 895

Mini Meal offers several choices of meat, cheese, fruit and chips, as well as vegetarian-friendly choices.

Total Calories: 550

This airline, which offered the most variety and healthful choices, also offeres smaller versions of the smart pack, the Quickpick (650 calories) and the Rightbite (580 calories.)

Best Bet? Go for the Rightbite, or the Smartpack if you’re sharing.

Exercise equivalent: 231 minutes for the Smartpack, 142 minutes for the Mini-meal, 168 minutes for the Quickpick, 149 minutes for the Rightbite.

Continental Airlines:

Not much variety, but offers low-calorie, high impact meals. Flights of two hours or more offer a choice of turkey or ham sandwiches, carrots and a candy bar. Flights under two hours have choice of peanuts or pretzels.

Total Calories: 285 for the turkey sandwich, 316 for the ham sandwich.

Best Bet? Both sandwiches are fine, go with the "light "mayo.

Exercise equivalent: 73 minutes for the turkey sandwich; 81 minutes for the ham; 21 minutes for the peanuts; 13 minutes for the pretzels.

Jet Blue:

No snack pack, but offers individual snack choices of nuts, Wheat Thin crackers, chocolate chunk cookies (4), Doritos munchie mix, biscotti, chips, cashews.

Total Calories: Each snack is an individual portion and contains anywhere from 100 – 210 calories for one serving.

Best Bet? The nuts have protein and good fat, and will satisfy your hunger.

Exercise equivalent: Each individual snack will take anywhere from 26 – 54 minutes of walking to burn off.

U.S. Airways:

Not much variety and not much nutritional value. Snackpack offered on flights over 2.5 hours consists of fruit and nut mix, cookie, and cheese crackers.

Total Calories: 470 for Snackpack

Best Bet? Eat the fruit and nut mix and the cheese, skip the cookie and crackers.

Exercise equivalent: 121 minutes.

If none of these choices appeal to you, you might consider bringing your own snacks. Some healthful ideas include:

--water (very important to stay hydrated)

--healthy cereal such as Kashi or Cheerios

--beef jerky (good for low carb, but high in sodium)

--fruits such as apples, grapes and pears which are durable, or any that can be stored in a container

--rice cakes

--energy bars

-- nonfat yogurt

-- sandwiches on whole wheat bread

-- soy chips

And, as a good rule of thumb, make sure to check with the Transportation Security Administration for the latest rules on bringing food and liquids on board airplanes.

Planning ahead and making smart eating choices during your travel will ensure that you arrive at your destination feeling healthy and ready to share a meal with with your friends and relatives, and that you have room for a slice of pumpkin pie for dessert.

Though as we all know, during the holidays, deserts have no calories.

Dr. Manny Alvarez is the managing editor of health news at Foxnews.com, and is a regular medical contributor on the FOX News Channel. He is chairman of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Reproductive Science at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. Additionally, Alvarez is Adjunct Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at New York University School of Medicine in New York City.