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List Calories on Airline & Airport Menus: the Weekly Wish

Aug. 28, 2014
8 min read
List Calories on Airline & Airport Menus: the Weekly Wish
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Today TPG Contributor Nick Ewen continues his series The Weekly Wish, looking at flaws, shortcomings, and room for improvement in the world of travel and loyalty programs. Today’s wish: include calorie counts in airline and airport menus.

Eating healthy on the road isn't easy. Sometimes your only option is the drive-thru of a local fast food joint in between meetings, and crossing time zones can wreak havoc on your internal clock and destroy your carefully planned eating habits. I do everything I can to stay away from junk food and maintain a healthy lifestyle while traveling, but sometimes it feels like an uphill battle. This brings us to today’s Weekly Wish: that airports and airlines would post calorie counts and other nutritional information for travelers.

Who knows how many calories are lurking under that foil? (Image courtesy of Shutterstock)

I’m sure many of you are frustrated with pre-flight or in-flight dining simply because of a lack of options, especially when traveling domestically (or in coach on international flights). This holds true not only in airports, but also in airport lounges, and extends to 38,000 feet as well. Uncertainty abounds. What if my upgrade doesn’t clear and I’m stuck buying a snack box or pre-packaged sandwich in coach? What if it does clear and the only entrée choice is a creamy pasta dish? For many travelers, this means covering their bases by indulging in lounge snacks, having a sit-down meal before their flight, or purchasing lunch/dinner to take on board.

At over 1100 calories, my whole wheat burrito sure doesn't seem so healthy anymore!
At over 1100 calories, my whole wheat burrito sure doesn't seem so healthy anymore!

Unfortunately, it’s hard to know what you're putting in your body at many airport eateries. A salad may sound healthy, or a sandwich may appear simple and wholesome, but without detailed nutritional information, you're really flying blind. As a frequent Delta flyer, I find myself in Atlanta’s Concourse A on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. I love Mexican food and Qdoba is a regular stop for me, so I'll use it as an example.

Suppose you order a burrito in a whole-wheat tortilla with brown rice & pinto beans. You then add two different kinds of salsa (also very low calorie), and top it off with lettuce, cheese, sour cream, guacamole, and fajita vegetables. This may not seem like a splurge, but according to Qdoba’s online nutritional information, this meal weighs in at a whopping 1135 calories. By comparison, you could get a medium Big Mac meal with a Diet Coke at McDonald’s, add a vanilla ice cream cone, and still come out ahead in terms of calories (that order totals 1030 calories according to their online meal builder).

This is not meant as a criticism of Qdoba (nor is it an endorsement of McDonald’s). Instead, this information highlights that we often don’t really know how healthy a meal is when we order it, and the same holds true in an airport lounge or in-flight. Plain, unprepared fruits and veggies are easy to account for, but a small portion of a snack mix could be anywhere from 100 calories to 600 calories, What about that creamy pasta dish? Is the “salad” option really better than the “sandwich” option? The lack of clarity can be frustrating.

Panera is one chain that posts their calorie counts online AND on their large in-store menus.
Panera is one chain that posts their calorie counts online AND on their large in-store menus.

Airports and airlines could take a cue from some chains that are already doing this. Panera, for example, is one fast-casual restaurant that I tend to seek out when I'm on the road, partly because they post nutritional information on their menus. This makes choosing a healthy item a lot easier. If I absolutely have to grab fast food, McDonald’s is another chain that I've found will post calorie counts on menus. I'm all for making an informed decision, and having the calorie counts posted conspicuously is a great help to me (though studies have shown that posting this information at McDonald’s in particular doesn’t lead to healthier choices for all diners).

Salt adds flavor to your dish, but too much sodium is not a good thing!

Keep in mind, though, that calorie counts are only part of the nutritional equation. There’s also fat, carbs, sodium, and other key components of the foods we eat that need to be taken into account. Let’s take a closer look at sodium. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans from 2010 (an updated version is scheduled for next year), your daily intake of sodium shouldn’t exceed 2300 mg, and it should be no more than 1500 mg for children, those over 51, and adults with other known risk factors for heart disease/diabetes/hypertension. The “healthy” whole-wheat burrito at Qdoba that I mentioned above has 2645 mg of sodium... in one meal. That's not exactly a health-conscious choice!

The new online menu for Delta Sky Clubs includes links with nutrition information.
The new online menu for Delta Sky Clubs includes links with nutrition information.

I know it’s unrealistic to expect airport restaurants (or airlines) to post detailed nutritional information on every menu, but calories are a good start. The great thing is that if you're like me and you want those details, more and more restaurants and airlines are making them readily accessible (if not right in front of the customer then online or housed in an app). For example, Delta’s new Sky Club menu includes nutritional information, allowing you to make an informed decision about your snacks when visiting one of their locations.

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Wendy’s nutrition page provides a ton of information, or you can download their app to access information on the go. My favorite way to double-check myself is by using the Restaurant Nutrition app. With over 250 restaurants and thousands of menu items, it helps you quickly identify how healthy (or not) a dish is at your favorite chain without visiting their specific website. For example, did you know that a pepperoni personal pan pizza from Pizza Hut is only 30 calories more than a plan cheese one?

Unfortunately, this information is still significantly lacking when it comes to in-flight dining options, especially those in economy. Here are the links to the main domestic airlines and their in-flight dining pages:

Of all of those links, I only found one with any nutritional information: the Eat Up Café portion of JetBlue’s online menu, which is only available on transcontinental flights.

JetBlue eat up cafe nutrition
Only a small portion of JetBlue's inflight menu includes nutrition facts.

Again, I'm not asking airlines to reprint every menu on hundreds of flights and in thousands of seat back pockets. However, including this information on their respective websites seems reasonable. Since more and more airlines are equipping planes with Wi-Fi (and giving free access to their respective homepages), it would be easy for passengers to visit the site and investigate the different options before purchasing. Airlines could even put a QR code on their respective menus that would link directly to the corresponding page.

You road warriors out there probably have your own tips for staying (somewhat) healthy on the road. I bring a water bottle with me everywhere, and at times I feel like airport water fountains were built with people like me in mind. More water = less Diet Coke! I also try to always have nutritious snacks in my briefcase and/or carry-on in case hunger strikes while I'm in the air. My favorites include trail mix, Kind bars, and dried fruit. I’ve been known to snag an apple or banana from a hotel’s breakfast buffet, and if I can add a packet of peanut butter and a plastic knife to make a protein-packed mid-morning snack, even better!

Would calorie counts posted on airplane and airport menus be useful to you? What are your tips for staying healthy on the road? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below!
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Featured image by Panera is one chain that posts their calorie counts online AND on their large in-store menus.