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Boot Fast Food from the Hospital

By Tom Peterson

The worthy dictum “first do no harm” needs little explanation. Yet when it comes to serving food, many hospitals ignore it.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine reminds us that just one generation ago cigarettes were sold in hospital gift shops and patients could smoke in their rooms. But then smoking was banned and hospitals no longer promoted disease. Or do they? “Cigarettes are out, but burgers, chicken wings, and cheesy pizza are in at many U.S. hospitals,” says the committee’s fifth hospital foods report.

A recent study in the journal Public Health Nutrition found that on days when people eat fast food they consume significantly more calories and saturated fat, which exacerbates obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic diseases. The study concluded that efforts to improve diet and reduce fast-food consumption could actually help reduce socio-economic disparities in Americans’ diets.

The hazards of consuming meaty, cheesy fast foods are well documented. A McDonald’s website even advised its employees that “people with high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease must be very careful about choosing fast food because of its high fat.” Bacon, hot dogs, and other processed meats that are fast-food staples are known to promote cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. And studies have shown that chicken samples from Chick-fil-A and other fast-food chains contain PhIP, a carcinogen linked to breast, colon, and prostate cancer.

Yet the food chains are moving in. The committee found from 208 hospitals surveyed at least 20 Chic-fil-A’s, 18 McDonalds and five Wendy’s in hospitals, along with others. Most of these hospitals are in the south where obesity is highest. But the report has some good news, as well: “McDonald’s closed at Riley Hospital for Children of Indiana University Health and St. Louis Children’s Hospital no longer carries Dairy Queen products. Several other fast-food restaurants have also recently closed in hospitals around the country.”

Tale of two meals

Writing in The Guardian, my friend Anna Lappé tells of the meal offered to her the morning after giving birth to her first daughter: “The tray that sat in front of me included something that slightly resembled oatmeal, bright-red Jello, ‘orange juice,’ and black coffee paired with a packet of sugar and non-dairy creamer. Having just experienced the most gruelling 48 hours of my life, this tray wasn’t exactly giving me what I needed, to put it mildly.”

Three years later, spending a few days in UCSF Medical Center with another daughter Lappe reports, “On the menu is organic plain whole milk yoghurt, fresh fruit, organic apple sauce, and wholegrain locally made bread. In the cafeteria downstairs is a salad bar stocked with fresh vegetables. And in the corridor of the hospital wing across the street is a farmers market filled with persimmons, apples, and much more from local growers.”

Hospitals replacing disease-friendly food with health-friendly food are modeling good diets and creating valuable “teachable moments,” especially as they explain to their staff, patients and visitors why they are making the shift. Jack Henderson, with UCSF’s nutrition and food services told Lappé, “We are here to not only give people good, clean, and honestly produced food but also to set an example for them about making the right food choices after they leave our care.”