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January 12, 2004 -- It's a bleak time for fliers who are trying to eat healthy, according to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a non-profit group that promotes good nutrition and medical research. The move to "buy-on-board" food and restaurant-branded meals may have made airline food tastier, but it's actually become more difficult to find healthy options in the past year, the PCRM found.

Eating Healthy in the Air

The PCRM contends that low-fat, low-calorie, high-fiber meals are best. In terms of airline food, they say that means looking for vegetarian and vegan options. (We quibble with this -- a tomato, mozzarella and pesto sandwich on a ciabatta is a lot less healthy than sliced turkey on whole wheat -- but we understand their point.) Unfortunately, airlines are cutting vegetarian options left and right, the PCRM found.

Travelers on Alaska, American and United airlines are in the best state, still able to order vegetarian meals if they ask in advance, the PCRM says. Continental, Delta, Midwest, Northwest and US Airways don't even give you a veggie option if you ask politely. (The PCRM positively recommends the airline Song, but when we checked in late December, Song had removed its vegetarian option from its menu.)

In our recent column on "buy-on-board" meals -- the newer, tastier options that airlines are charging extra for -- we found that Delta, Air Canada and American are currently offering veggie possibilities in their buy-on-board service. That leaves Continental, Midwest, Northwest, and US Airways fliers out in the cold.

As an example of the unhealthy food you can get on airplanes, the PCRM singled out Northwest's ham, salami and provolone cheese sandwich. If the 800 calories don't dissuade you, the 40 grams of fat ought to.

To read the full airline food report, go to www.pcrm.org/news/health031117_report.html.

Eating Healthy at the Airport

Scared away by the cost and quality of airline food, many travelers nowadays are choosing to eat at the airport instead. The PCRM has good news for those folks: it's not all that hard to find healthy eating options at many airports, as long as you choose smart. For a full copy of the report, see www.pcrm.org/news/health031212_report.html.

PCRM nutritionists went hunting for low-fat, high-fiber entrees at restaurants in 15 major US airports. Generally, that means vegetarian sandwiches, soups, bean burritos and Asian mixed vegetable dishes.

If you're flying out of Denver, San Francisco, Chicago, Detroit, Miami, Houston or Newark, they said you won't have much trouble finding healthy food. At least 60% of the restaurants in those airports serve healthy meals. Some of them are where you don't expect: the 15 Starbucks outlets at Chicago's O'Hare airport with healthy veggie panini sandwiches. And some are even culinarily interesting, like the black beans and rice at La Carreta in Miami.

Fliers from Atlanta, JFK, Seattle, Phoenix and LA are going to have to hunt a little harder, the report says. Pizza Huts, Starbucks (without the veggie sandwich) and McDonald's outlets tempt at every turn, enticing you into fatty meals that leave you with that familiar icky feeling when you hit 10,000 feet. Each airport offers some vegetarian sandwiches and such, but they might not be near your gate.

Las Vegas and Minneapolis scrape the bottom of the barrel when it comes to healthy eateries, the report says. You may have to turn to a Burger King veggie-burger or a Sbarro's pasta primavera to keep your arteries in shape, and (in our opinion) those aren't the world's tastiest foods. See if you can eat before heading to the airport.

The PCRM's airport food report has one fatal flaw, though: it treats airports as a unit. New York's JFK, for instance, has eight detached terminals, and even with the new AirTrain, folks flying out of Terminal 8 aren't likely to go to Terminal 1 for a meal. Considering that problem, you may just want to pack your lunch after all.

What's your opinion on airport food? Do you have a favorite (and healthy) eatery in yours? Tell us about it on our Air Travel Message Boards.