Food might be medicine, but many hospital patients and staff dine on options that are almost as bad as fast food. Is there a healthier alternative?
Whether you’re in the hospital to recover from surgery, an accident, or giving birth, you likely don’t think that the food you eat there could make you sick.
But with menus that include sugary meal replacement shakes and heavily processed meals, you’re certainly not getting any healthier.
Many doctors and other nutrition experts advocate for healthy hospital food, but they face barriers from Medicare, Medicaid, hospital administrators, and big food companies. Read on for a look at the current state of hospital food, and how it can improve.
Hospital Food: Low-Nutrition, High-Sugar
Hospital food ties with fast food on a nutrition scale, and it’s not just the patients who suffer for it. (1) Anyone who works in a hospital and eats the food on a regular basis, including doctors, nurses, and other staff, are eating foods that are loaded with unhealthy fats, sodium, and sugar. (2)
Hospital administrators are aware of the health impact of ingredients like added sugar. The most recent U.S. Dietary Guidelines note that almost 75 percent of the population doesn’t eat enough vegetables and fruits, and that most “exceed recommendations for added sugars, saturated fats, and sodium”. (3)
The government recognizes that most of the population succumbs to poor nutrition choices, so why would it promote them in a setting meant to heal the most vulnerable?
Take, for example, the Veterans Health Administration – a health care system that is fully funded by the U.S. government. All of their hospitals contain vending machines with items that are required to be stocked from food suppliers, including beverages with more than 55 grams of sugar. A third of the items include potato chips, candy, and other junk foods. (4)
Privately run hospitals often don’t fare much better. While nutrition is a crucial, ethical concern, it’s difficult to balance patient nutrition and financial stability to remain open as a trauma care center.
Unfortunately, healthy food costs more money, and many hospitals choose lower-cost food suppliers in order to avoid financial pitfalls. (5)
Experts Weigh In
In 2017, the American Medical Association (AMA) called hospitals out for offering sugary beverages and other unhealthy foods. They advocated healthier options for patients, staff, and visitors.
What would healthier hospital meals look like? They might include more plant-based meals, foods low in added sugars and sodium, and eliminating unhealthy choices like sugary drinks and processed meats. (6)
AMA board member William E. Kobler spelled it out clearly at the 2017 meeting. “Excessive sugar consumption has been linked to some of the nation’s most debilitating diseases, and limiting the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages will go a long way toward helping people prevent the onset of these diseases, improve health outcomes, and rein in health costs associated with chronic diseases”, he said. (7)
West Virginia University medical professor Mark Cucuzzella echoes the AMA. “In most hospitals, patients can choose from a smorgasbord of sugar”, he wrote in a piece for Salon.
“That’s why, for years, I’ve advocated for my hospital – West Virginia’s Jefferson Medical Center – to remove all sugary drinks from its vending machines and cafeterias”, he said. “We just did so.” (8)
University of Pennsylvania Hospital resident Dave Lieberman proposed that patients and doctors need to come up with their own solutions to this hospital food crisis. “Food has the potential to be some of the best medicine. But not food like this. As a physician, I need to be able to offer more wholesome and therapeutic options to my patients than what amounts to synthetic sugary shakes with a middling amount of protein”, he wrote for the New York Times. (9)
Some hospital cafeterias are taking matters into their own hands. MetroWest Medical Center, outside of Boston, has planned a reward system for patients and staff for choosing foods that they’ve labeled as healthy. In San Francisco, Benioff Children’s Hospital now lists nutrition stats on food receipts. (10)
Healthy Alternatives for Hospital Food
Patients can advocate for themselves by providing suggestions and solutions to their hospitals. If hospitals want to get on board, there are some easy, healthy food swaps they can make.
Better nutrition means hospitals can truly be a source of healing and recovery, not just trauma management.
Swap Meal Replacement Shakes for Greek Yogurt and Kefir
While the “meal in a drink” is a popular go-to for hospitals, current offerings rely on corn syrup and refined sugar for flavor, with less than 10 grams of protein and 24 grams of sugar a bottle. (11)
For patients unable to eat healthy protein like grilled chicken or fish, Greek yogurt might be an option. It would provide 16g of protein and only 5g of sugar, and can easily be whipped into a healthy shake. (12)
While Greek yogurt isn’t a Paleo option, the corn syrup-heavy meal in a drink is as far from a whole food as it gets. Greek yogurt, however, is a Primal-friendly option if you tolerate dairy. For those who can’t tolerate dairy, coconut and nut-based options are also healthy options. More importantly, it represents a shift toward a whole foods mentality and steers patients further from overly processed junk.
Not only does Greek yogurt have protein, but it also contains live and active bacteria, and if ever there were a place where people needed dietary probiotics, hospitals would be it. Patients in hospitals, especially the elderly, are at a significantly higher risk of encountering antibiotic-resistant bacteria. (13)
Eliminate Sugar-Laden Drinks and Focus on Hydrating Beverages
Nothing trumps water when it comes to hydration, but some people aren’t motivated to drink it. Other hydrating options include coconut water, green tea, herbal tea, and even kombucha – which also contains live and active cultures.
Fruit juice is so chock-full of sugar that it’s little better than consuming soda, so even a hospital’s habit of providing juice with every breakfast contributes to the excess sugar burden on patients. (14) It would be better to provide whole pieces of fruit and to eliminate juice altogether.
Ditch Inflammatory Vegetable Oils
Most hospital restaurants and cafeterias rely heavily on vegetable oil, like canola or safflower, to cook foods. However, these are loaded with omega-6 fatty acids and even trans fats which, according to animal studies, can be harmful for inflammation levels, heart health, and even increase the risk for dementia and Alzheimer’s. (15, 16)
Animal and human studies show that fats like avocado oil, olive oil, and coconut oil all have protective health benefits and, while more expensive, could significantly boost omega-3 fatty acids and provide anti-inflammatory benefits. (17, 18, 19)
Integrating nourishing ingredients into hospital food is crucial to promoting nutritional therapy as well as medical and trauma care. While we may years away from this ideal scenario, the best way to advocate for change is to spread awareness and demand change yourself.
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