Imagine you or someone you love are in the hospital. Breakfast is a tasty oat and chia porridge with walnuts, blueberries, and hemp seeds. Lunch is a large black bean salad made with a large variety of local greens. And dinner is a delicious and filling lentil soup with another large salad and quinoa. All of it is delicious – and all of it is grown organically.
If you know anything about hospital food, you know that healthy, fresh, plant-based menus are far from typical. Instead, the food that’s served to patients and the food that’s available at hospital cafeterias is often bland, boring, overcooked, and worst of all, unhealthy.
Think pork chops, gravy, and a pudding made with artificial sweeteners, served after an operation, as one of our community members told us. Or Doritos, Oreos, and a sandwich on white bread served with mayonnaise to a heart patient. Or chicken wings with hot sauce, creamy mashed potatoes, chocolate cake, and a soda served to a patient suffering from Crohn’s disease – which causes inflammation of the gut.
Unfortunately, this type of food is standard at most hospitals in the U.S., the U.K., and Canada — and in other countries as well. The food served to patients, staff, and visitors is mostly junk food products that are high in sugar, unhealthy fats, and salt, and that are often highly processed. Colorful, fresh fruits and vegetables are few and far between. Organically grown food is virtually unheard of.
But what if the food served at hospitals actually supported health and healing?
This would make a lot of sense. Especially, considering the numerous scientific studies that now show how whole foods, plant-powered meals may be able to prevent and even reverse chronic diseases, such as heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes, as well as obesity and other health conditions.
As you’ll see below, there are some signs that nutritious, plant-based food could be the future of hospital food, but most hospitals, as well as doctors and hospital staff, have a long way to go.
U.S. health organizations are calling for hospitals to offer plant-based food options
Two major medical groups in the U.S. are calling on hospitals to end the irony and support patient health with healthy food.
The American Medical Association House of Delegates — a group which represents more than 200,000 physicians — issued a policy statement on June 14th at its annual meeting calling on U.S. hospitals to make some changes to hospital food for patients, staff, and visitors:
- Increase healthful, plant-based meal options,
- Eliminate processed meat from menus, and
- Provide and promote healthful beverages, including getting rid of sugary drinks and sodas
The American College of Cardiology also recently released new guidelines urging hospitals to improve patient menus by adding healthy plant-based options and removing processed meats.
The guidelines recommend that “at least one plant-based main dish” should be offered and promoted at every meal. And that processed meats — bacon, sausage, ham, hot dogs, and deli meats — shouldn’t be offered at hospitals at all.
They also call for a variety of vegetables and fruits to be served in all hospital cafeterias and on-site restaurants.
Fast food and processed foods in hospitals
Processed meats, such as hot dogs and sausage, are now known to cause cancer, according to the World Health Organization. And fast foods are often high in calories yet offer little or no nutritional value.
Yet a 2014 study by Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine found that 20% of the 208 U.S. hospitals they surveyed hosted fast food restaurants, like McDonald’s, Chick Fil A, and Wendy’s. And according to figures from 2015, more than 100 hospitals in Britain have fast food outlets.
Why is hospital food so unhealthy?
Many hospitals need to make money, and they typically have small food budgets. They are also under strict food handling and safety regulations. Plus, they have to make huge quantities of food. This has led to mass-produced food which is bought in bulk or outsourced to large companies, and in this context, processed foods have become the norm.
Switching to healthier food could save hospitals money
While it may not be easy, switching to healthy options can actually save money. For example, a health system in Detroit saved more than $28,000 by getting rid of its deep fryers and deep-fried foods and increasing its fruit and vegetable purchases.
And Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington, Vermont, works with 70 local farmers and producers. One way they are able to do so affordably is by switching to a different food when the cost of one food rises.
“[I]t’s a fallacy to say healthier food always costs more,” Diane Imrie, Fletcher’s director of nutrition services, says, “It takes a lot of work for it not to cost more, but it can certainly be done.”
Positive signs about the future of hospital food
Midland Health in Midland, Texas, offers an inspiring example of a hospital where “food is medicine.” They offer programs for the community – such as whole foods, plant-based grocery tours, and a program led by Michael Klaper, M.D. that is designed to empower clinical staff at every level to make positive dietary suggestions so their patients will benefit from optimal nutrition – and screenings of the film Forks Over Knives.
Also, the food served to patients is nutritious and comforting. Hospital chefs partner with registered dieticians to create new and exciting flavors and whole foods plant-based meals that feel more like cuisine from finer hotels, rather than the typical drab hospital fare.
Other hospitals are making positive changes to the food they serve, as well. UCLA Medical Center is using organic food. At its cafe, St. Louis Children’s Hospital is offering low-fat, plant-based meals made with no animal products or oils and crafted in small batches by a local company.
The University of Vermont Medical Center says it aims to have the most sustainable health care food service in the country. Patients and visitors can enjoy nutritionally dense, minimally processed foods, including a variety of locally produced ingredients. They allow patients to order food when they want it, rather than delivering trays with the same meals at the same time. And the cafeteria for serves fresh, organic ingredients and multiple vegetarian options.
Another positive development at hospitals is gardens and farmers markets. For example, Stony Brook University Hospital, in Stony Brook, N.Y., has a 2,242-square-foot organic rooftop garden that supplies vegetables and herbs for patient meals.
At several Kaiser Permanente Medical Centers in California, doctors, nurses, and other staff are learning about plant-powered eating so they can pass along the information to their patients. Some of the medical staff are even adopting plant-powered diets long-term.
“If I’m trying to teach my patients how to eat, I need to be doing the same thing,” registered nurse Tammy Bargain told ABC30. By following a plant-based diet, she lost 14 pounds. And now, she helps staff and patients make the switch.
The medical center offers classes, free support groups, and 21-day challenges. By encouraging small steps, dietitian Judy Meadows says, “We’re seeing stress reduction, we’re seeing weight loss, we’re seeing less sick days, [and] healthier families at home.”
According to a 2015 study published in the journal Preventive Medicine Reports, hospital gardens created for staff, patients, and the community can lower rates of obesity in communities they serve and reduce public health disparities by providing more people with easy access to fresh, healthy, plant-based foods.
The Healthier Hospitals Initiative aims to encourage hospitals in the U.S. to consider the health and environmental impacts of their operations. This means changing the way a hospital purchases, prepares, and markets food products on its menus and in its cafeterias and stores. For example, replacing processed foods with fresh and local produce. And reducing meat on menus and replacing it with plant-based foods.
How can you take action to improve hospital food?
If you want better food options at hospitals, you can ask your local hospitals if they offer healthful, plant-based food for patients, and you can let them know what type of food you want them to serve.
You can also look out for campaigns and petitions that promote or call for healthier food at hospitals. For example, this petition from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine asks Ben Taub Hospital in Houston to make its hospital fast-food free, and to get rid of the onsite McDonald’s.
How can hospitals improve their food?
Here are some resources for hospitals that want to serve better food:
- The Healthier Hospitals Initiative offers a how-to guide for hospitals
- The Physicians Committee for Responsible Health offers a toolkit for hospitals to provide heart healthy foods
- Health Care Without Harm has programs and a pledge hospitals can take to promote healthy and environmentally friendly food options
And here are recommendations for hospital food from The Healthier Hospitals Initiative:
- Offer a daily salad bar
- Remember fresh is best
- Choose healthier versions of prepared food products
- Make vegetarian options and prioritize local and organic ingredients
- Serve a healthy, hearty vegetarian soup every day
- Offer organic soymilk or rice milk or almond milk
- Keep high-fat add-ons optional
- Include beans on salad bars and offer a hot, healthy bean dish daily
- Experiment with menu items from world cuisines
- Ask customers what they want to see, and
- Offer nutrition information and point out the healthiest options
Environments play a big role in people’s choices and thoughts about food. Food environments that support healthier eating have been found to significantly reduce many chronic diseases. Therefore, having unhealthy, processed, junk foods, and fast foods available at hospitals makes some people think this food is okay for them to consume, even if they’re sick.
If hospitals want to live up to their mission and to promote health, the food they serve must reflect that mission. They must do the hard work to change systems that have become part of the problem they’re supposedly trying to fix.
And we can all play a part in helping hospitals to evolve.
Millions of lives may depend on it.