Published March 26, 2017
My favorite late night television host of all time was David Letterman. He was on the air for 33 years,...
— William Wilberforce
A few months ago, I visited a cancer patient at a reputable hospital—an experience that completely altered my perspective on our “healthcare” system. Hippocrates, also known as the “Father of Western Medicine” once said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine thy food.” However, this is far from what you will find practiced in many American hospitals. I observed a meal being served to a patient. The meal consisted of fake mashed potatoes, canned peas, a piece of processed turkey with gravy and a container of green colored jello.
Many hospital meals are typically packed with sodium, sugar and trans fats—all of which are damaging to the healthiest of people, let alone ill patients. One would assume that hospital food would reflect a commitment to good nutrition, but this is hardly the case. This experience sparked my curiosity regarding hospital food administration.
Patients usually end up in a hospital because of a medical emergency—either a sudden traumatic injury, a stroke or heart attack, complications from an acute infection or they are suffering from a chronic illness, such as cancer, kidney or lung disease or other debilitating diseases. It is concerning enough that many children and adults in America do not meet their daily recommendations of fruits and vegetables,1 but serving hospital patients unhealthy food is just plain paradoxical. When patients are sick and trying to get well, it doesn’t make sense to serve them unhealthy food. It certainly counteracts the efforts of doctors to try and re-establish the health of patients.
Although hospitals are primarily for treating medical emergencies, nutritious food is an integral part of the healing process. So, ideally, hospitals should be a place for patients to learn about the importance of good nutrition. Obviously, a short hospital stay may not dramatically alter one’s eating habits, but it could offer a good educational opportunity to begin to influence change.
It isn’t exactly new knowledge that a predominantly plant-based diet with minimal processed foods and low amounts of sugar and no trans fats is optimal for health promotion and disease prevention.2 This is what makes the whole issue of hospital food and its questionable health benefits so odd.
Although specific data on food served to patients at hospitals in the United States is outdated, there have been some initiatives to raise the standards of hospital meals,3 but they have made limited progress. One of the problems, of course, is that corporations that own and operate many of the hospitals in the U.S. are cutting costs and food budgets are under constant pressure. Food is generally seen as an expense rather than a necessary treatment.4
If there is any place that health promotion should be of utmost importance for patients, employees and visitors, it should be in the healthcare field, particularly hospitals. Hospital cafeterias are known for serving hamburgers, chicken wings, and pizza, but even more shocking is the fact that some hospitals host fast food chains on their premises. According to the 2015 Physicians Committee’s report uncovering complex contracts between fast food chains and hospitals:
Cheeseburgers and milkshakes are delivered to patients, restaurant leases are broken when profits from cancer-promoting chicken nuggets and processed meats don’t reach $1 million, and hospitals make money from the increased sales of fast food loaded with saturated fats and cholesterol.5
The report reveals that Chic-fil-A has at least 20 locations at hospitals, McDonald’s at least 18, and Wendy’s at least five, in addition to other national and local restaurants selling processed meat and dairy products.5 It is ludicrous that hospitals would promote the very foods that contribute to the deterioration of the health of millions of Americans, to the point where they will eventually require hospital care.5 This raises an ethical issue. According to a 2013 report published in the AMA Journal of Ethics, a doctor serving on a hospital board argued:
if a hospital cafeteria achieves profitability by selling items that promote poor eating habits and poor health, there is a conflict between that business practice and the hospital’s broader mission. Certainly, a hospital might generate valuable revenue by selling any number of products that are bad for one’s health (e.g., cigarettes). But selling such products would contradict the health-driven mission, and any revenue generated would not be a defensible offset. Offsets from selling foods that clearly damage human health would, likewise, be indefensible.6
There is plenty of evidence highlighting the association between poor nutrition and susceptibility to infectious diseases and chronic illness. Good nutrition is the cornerstone for building a strong immune system capable of fighting disease naturally.
What is perplexing is that hospitals are promoting unhealthy foods to hospital employees, patients and visitors, while simultaneously so concerned about staff and patient influenza infections that they are mandating flu shots for employees and firing those who don’t comply, even though flu shots fail to work half the time. This is a gross contradiction of public health standards. It reflects a major conflict between hospital policies and ethical practices and raises questions about financial conflicts of interest with for-profit corporations that fail to serve the best interests of patients or hospital staff.
Hospitals should begin protecting their employees and patients from susceptibility to infections and chronic disease by focusing on the true and time-tested methods for disease prevention—starting with incorporating good nutrition as part of the patient treatment plan and providing healthy food options for staff and visitors to the hospital.
1 Moore L, Thompson F. Adults Meeting Fruit and Vegetable Intake Recommendations–United States, 2013. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 2015; 64 (26): 709-713.
2 Hamblin J. Science Compared Every Diet and the Answer is Real Food. The Atlantic Mar. 24, 2014.
3 Physicians Committee Responsible for Medicine. 2016 Hospital Food Report: Highlighting Hazardous and Healthy Hospital Food Environments. PCRM.org 2016
4 Silverman MR, Gregoire MB, Lafferty LJ, Dowling RA. Current and Future Practices in Hospital Food Services. Journal of the American Dietetic Association 2000; 100 (1): 76-80.
5 Good Medicine. Hazardous Hospital Foods: How Fast Food Jeopardizes Public Health. Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine 2015; XXIV (1).
6 Lesser L, Lucan S. The Ethics of Hospital Cafeteria Food. AMA Journal of Ethics 2013; 15(4): 299-305.