The alarming truth: hospital food DOES NOT support healing

medicalRecently, my husband’s brother experienced a mountain bike accident resulting in a traumatic brain injury. Through the countless hours and weeks my husband and I have spent sitting vigil with his wife, other family members and friends, we have watched doctors and nurses work tirelessly at helping heal his serious physical injuries. However, these medical professionals continue to neglect one crucial element – nutrition.

I took some time to look around at the food they were feeding their wards, these critically injured and sick individuals, and noticed with despair the plates lined with processed meat sandwiches on white bread, sugary canned fruit cocktail and jello, prepackaged nutrient void applesauce, white rice, instant potatoes, and broth made from salty bullion. All these foods provide calories, but little else.

When the body is in healing mode it needs powerhouse nutrients. I can’t help but wonder how the hospitals would improve healing rates by simply feeding their patients fresh whole plant-based foods that support each patient’s specific physiological needs.

It’s not uncommon to hear in the news about a hospital’s funding problems. Nurses are on strike, buildings need updating and repair, and too many patients can’t afford their care so hospital bills go unpaid. As a result, most hospitals resort to making financial decisions based on the bottom line, cutting costs where they can and food quality is not a high priority expense.

In fact, most hospitals serve their patients foods that research has shown actually promotes disease, such as highly processed foods, saturated fats, starch, sugar, and salt (1)(2). The problem is that most hospitals contract with companies that specialize in preparing institutional food. These companies focus on producing high volumes at low cost, taking advantage of bulk purchases and the use of prepackaged and pre-prepared foods while avoiding the higher costs of organic fresh fruits, vegetables and meat. Since most of the food is cooked remotely and then reheated at the hospital, it also tends to be overcooked (3).

Not only are patients not getting the nutrients they need to support the medical treatments they are receiving, a lot of this food simply goes uneaten. According to CBC News article Hospital Food Lacks Proper Nutrition, due to depression, pain, worry, tiredness, and drug side effects, a lot of the food sits on trays wasted as patients typically do not eat more then a few bites or miss meals due to procedures. Malnourished patients are at higher risk of developing infections and take longer to recuperate in hospital. In addition, many patients and their families look to the hospital as an example for how to provide care once returning home. What example are we setting when we ignore the role food plays in healing?

Due to Obama Care, many hospitals are beginning to make changes in their patients’ diets in order to receive higher Medicare patient satisfaction scores. Those hospitals that earn above average scores will receive financial bonuses from Medicare (4). Consequently, some hospitals are providing better quality food and more menu choices in order to cater to patient preference. For example, Kaiser in Raliegh NC is using food as a marketing tool, providing fancy options like “banana-nut pancakes, Caribbean grilled chicken salad, Philly-style cheese-steaks, orzo salad and baked potato wedges” (5). They are transforming the institutionalized perception of hospital food into the glamor of a hotel.

But this illusion of quality food does not necessarily equate to a healing diet. Although this attempt at improving patient care leads to more enticing options and better tasting food, it’s still loaded in saturated fats, starch, sugar, salt, processed ingredients, etc. Hospitals remain misguided about the important role food plays in healing.

Instead of trying to please the patient’s perception of hospital food, shouldn’t they be focusing on improving a patient’s ability to heal?

Food is a powerful tool in the healing process. It is a basic fact that everything we consume directly affects our body’s well being. It would be more beneficial to the patient if the menu options were designed to provide the powerhouse nutrients needed to support their healing process. Healing is hard work and requires support from the basic cellular level.

You might by thinking, “Yuck, more tasteless food” or “Way too much broccoli for my liking”. But healthy food can be delicious. For example, in the case of my brother-in-law, friends and family have been bringing him foods high in omega-3s, protein, antioxidants, and other nutrients designed to support brain health. He’s been enjoying protein and antioxidant rich smoothies, cocoa date energy balls, chia pudding, fresh fruits (especially berries) and vegetables, homemade soups, etc. And how is his health? With the support of his amazing wife, a incredible team of doctors and his nutrient rich diet, he is making incredible strides beyond expectations.

What’s on the horizon?

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) understands that “healthy food is almost as important to healing as competent medical care, and healthy eating habits play a critical role in preventing chronic disease”. As a result, they have started a Healthy Hospital Food Initiative to bring awareness to the need for change and provide helpful recommendations to hospitals. Learn more.

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