Will hospital food ever get better?

New York–area chefs are working on the problem. More need to follow their lead.

  • 23 New York–area hospitals are attempting to redefine hospital food by making it healthier and more exciting to prepare.
  • 20% of 208 hospital facilities surveyed featured McDonald's, Chick-fil-A, and Wendy's on their campuses.
  • A 2017 report published in JAMA found that almost half of deaths caused heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and stroke can be attributed to poor diet.

Boston's Children Hospital is one of the most well-regarded children's medical facilities in the world. It was fortunate that my ex-wife's teenage nephew lived in Boston. When he suffered a brain injury that nearly killed him eight years ago, the top-notch staff saved his life. People from around the world to bring their children to this facility thanks to its combination of expertise and equipment.

Yet what I remember most about the trip to visit him was the food. Here we were, in one of the best hospitals on the planet, and the cafeteria looked like a 7-11. Our options included muffins, cookies, potato chips, soda, and not much else. I was stunned that a place of healing would only offer visitors the products that bring many patients into its wings in the first place.

I shouldn't have been that surprised. I worked in the emergency room at another top institution, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, for two years while attending Rutgers. In fact, I lived in that same hospital for over a month after breaking my femur in 1986. I recall eating in the hospital as both an employee and patient. In both situations, what was provided was anything but healthy.

I'm not alone in this confusion. A recent Eater expose highlights the problem:

A Styrofoam cup of watery broth, orange Jell-O, blue Gatorade, low-fat vanilla yogurt, a juice box of wild berry-flavored Boost Breeze, a packet of Scandishake powder, and generic saltines, neatly lined up on a dull gray hospital tray: This was among my husband's first meals in over two months.

I remember the Jell-O, saltines, and juice well—I drank multiple plastic containers of grape juice every day for five weeks, not exactly the best option for an overweight eleven-year-old. America might be unique in this disregard for health, at least given this global survey of user-generated photos of hospital food from around the world. (Ok, Poland isn't looking so hot either.)

In America, obesity costs $147 billion per year, driving up our annual health care costs by 29%. A 2017 report published in JAMA found that almost half of deaths caused by heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and stroke can be attributed to poor diet. Why, then, are the places that address these diseases part of the problem? How do administrators get this very solvable issue so wrong?

As the NY Times reports,

Only 27 percent of American medical schools teach the recommended 25 hours of nutrition, and even then the content is mostly biochemistry rather than "practical" advice about diet.

This explains why doctors are often ignorant of nutrition, but does this problem persist in every facet of hospital bureaucracy? Not every doctor is clueless about this issue: In 2016, a nonprofit group of over 12,000 medical professionals filed a report about hospital food, stating that 20% of the 208 facilities surveyed featured McDonald's, Chick-fil-A, and Wendy's on their campuses. If visitors are getting shafted, just consider the patients:

The food served in regular hospital cafeterias often isn't much better; in the same 2015 report, PCRM [the Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine] analyzed cafeteria menus and patient meal plans, and found that they often included processed meats and items high in sugar, salt, and cholesterol. Another study from 2012, published in the journal Academic Pediatrics, assessed the food offerings in 14 California children's hospitals, rating each hospital on a scale from 0 (unhealthy) to 37 (healthy). The average score was 19, and only 7 percent of the 384 entrees served were classified as healthy.

Fortunately, things are changing. A pilot program at a children's hospital in Ottawa includes red Thai curry, basil pesto with kale, and cod on the menu; the vegetables that chef Simon Wiseman cooks with are pulled from his garden. And, as the NY Times article above mentions, a move toward healthier food is happening at 23 New York–area hospitals.

Beyond serving healthier food to patients, there is an educational component to avoid patient re-admittance. Doctors are being trained to teach those under their care how to read food labels and understand what a carbohydrate is. They've even created a "food pharmacy" for discharged patients to return home with better nutritional options and are offering low-income patients the opportunity to return for free meals on a weekly basis.

Hospitals are stressful places, and humans are emotional animals. A few weeks ago, I sliced off my fingertip while cutting an onion. My wife, taking a nap, was startled when I ran into the bedroom, my left hand wrapped in a bloody towel. Two hours later, having received a tetanus shot after the cauterization of finger, it was obvious that the healthy dinner previously in preparation was not happening. We settled on burritos—true comfort food in Los Angeles—on the ride home.

We need our medical establishments to do better. Health care spending accounts for nearly 18% of America's GDP. That unacceptable figure is produced by an industry that keeps us returning by fostering bad dietary habits. At a moment when citizens really need medical professionals to educate them, they're failing miserably by feeding them the same crap that likely put them in the hospital in the first place. It's slowly changing, as one doctor in the NY Times piece noted, but the change is not coming soon enough.

--

Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook.


LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Sponsored
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

Can the keto diet help treat depression? Here’s what the science says so far

A growing body of research shows promising signs that the keto diet might be able to improve mental health.

Public Domain
Mind & Brain
  • The keto diet is known to be an effective tool for weight loss, however its effects on mental health remain largely unclear.
  • Recent studies suggests that the keto diet might be an effective tool for treating depression, and clearing up so-called "brain fog," though scientists caution more research is necessary before it can be recommended as a treatment.
  • Any experiments with the keto diet are best done in conjunction with a doctor, considering some people face problems when transitioning to the low-carb diet.
Keep reading Show less

If you want to spot a narcissist, look at the eyebrows

Bushier eyebrows are associated with higher levels of narcissism, according to new research.

Big Think illustration / Actor Peter Gallagher attends the 24th and final 'A Night at Sardi's' to benefit the Alzheimer's Association at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on March 9, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)
popular
  • Science has provided an excellent clue for identifying the narcissists among us.
  • Eyebrows are crucial to recognizing identities.
  • The study provides insight into how we process faces and our latent ability to detect toxic people.
Keep reading Show less

Want to age gracefully? A new study says live meaningfully

Thinking your life is worthwhile is correlated with a variety of positive outcomes.

YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • A new study finds that adults who feel their lives are meaningful have better health and life outcomes.
  • Adults who felt their lives were worthwhile tended to be more social and had healthier habits.
  • The findings could be used to help improve the health of older adults.
Keep reading Show less