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Could you eat healthily just from takeaways?

Recently I was booked on a trans-Tasman flight with my husband, when our departure was delayed for a few hours. It was in the early evening. Suddenly our plans for a delightful dinner in Sydney were scrapped, and we were forced to forage for dinner in the healthy food desert that is the airport terminal.

Think I’m being a little harsh? Since I had plenty of time, I did a survey of my terminal food options, looking for somewhere to spend the $12 food voucher that Air New Zealand had given me. (This also had me seriously wondering if anyone at the airline had seen the prices of the food at the airport, but that’s another story).

The eating options available in this controlled setting are not great. There’s your standard café fare of pizzas, cakes, sandwiches and pastry. To be fair, there were a few salads, but on this day they were mostly of the stodgy, creamy, potato and pasta varieties. There’s a burger chain (sadly the outlet with the most airport real estate). And there’s sushi, probably the healthiest of the available options. But if you don’t like that, or you want serious vegetables – which you don’t get with sushi – you’re going to be out of luck. If you happened to be vegetarian, I’m not sure what you would do. I suspect the situation in the airline lounges is pretty similar; it’s buffet-style but from memory there’s not a whole lot of colourful veges on offer.

In the end we spent our $12 vouchers on a glass of wine each (no, not the healthiest option, but consider it stress relief), and paid ourselves for a couple of bento boxes. It was OK, but not great.  This got me thinking about how difficult it would be to eat healthily if I had to rely on foods from takeaway outlets and cafes only. The ability to cook for yourself at home is not to be underestimated in terms of health benefits; just this simple thing has been shown to mean people eat more vegetables and a generally healthier diet than people who don’t cook. But when we are travelling, or when we’re out and about and can’t cook for ourselves, often we are forced to rely on what is on offer to us in our environment. And that can be seriously problematic. 

That’s why I was really interested to see what we found when we put together our recent feature on takeaway food. Rather than just say (as we might be tempted to) “Don’t go there!” we wanted to see if we could find some healthier options at popular takeaway outlets, assuming that eating this kind of food is unavoidable sometimes. It was reassuring to see that yes, there are some healthier items available across the board, from burgers to pizza to sandwiches. It can take a bit of care and attention to get them (requesting no sauce or mayo or changing out the side dishes) but it is do-able.

There were also some really shocking surprises in there, too. Did you know a Wendy’s taco salad has more saturated fat and sodium than a McDonald’s Big Mac? Or that a Burger King ‘Salad Burger’ actually has more kilojoules, fat and sodium than a Big Mac? But the standout in the takeaway ‘hall of shame’ for me is the Carl’s Junior chain. I’d struggle to find anything I wanted to voluntarily eat on that menu, with many items being shockingly high in energy, saturated fat and sodium. One of their breakfast ‘platters’ has all the energy and fat you need for a whole day. And we’re not talking quality, nutrient-dense food here. It’s all brown and white and fried. I would actually say “don’t go there” when it comes to that outlet. Luckily there are other options, and you can find some of them in the November issue of HFG. Which would have been handy to have when I was stuck at the airport.

First published: Nov 2013
Last updated: April 3 2017
Last science review: October 10 2016



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