Why Hospital Food Is An Embarrassment + What We Can Do About It
As a vegan and a cardiologist, I have come to develop an attitude about hospital food over the years. We're long past the point where anyone can wonder if "clean eating" is important in disease prevention and reversal. By now we know that a plant-based diet lowers inflammation and oxidative stress, and can help prevent chronic diseases. Other diets heavy on plants (Mediterranean, Asian and lean Paleo, for example), are far superior to the average Western diet.
It seems, however, that this large body of science has been ignored by most hospitals. It is inexcusable and it must stop. Out of frustration, I have, plain and simply, become a plant-based bad-ass. Let me share a few examples from this past week.
(Note: I am purposefully not naming names so as not to embarrass any institutions where I work. With over 25 hospitals nationwide leasing space to McDonald’s in their lobbies, and dozens of others promoting chains with harmful processed foods, there is plenty of blame to go around.)
Doctors' Dining Room: Fried Foods Galore
My week of protest began when I walked into the doctor’s dining room, the inner sanctum where resident and staff physicians gather to grab a meal. The salad bar on the right was gorgeous, but on the left the "Special of the Day" caught my eye. It was a Reuben sandwich dripping in cheese with a pile of French fries. There was no information about fat or calories, let alone trans-fat or salt content.
I grabbed a marker and wrote "NOT SO" in front of the word "Special," took a picture, and mailed it to the CEO and several executives, including the Director of Nutrition. In a hospital striving for excellence in education and patient care, crap needs to be identified as crap.
Turns Out The Doctors Want to Eat Crap
The day wasn’t over. A food worker privately pulled me aside. Although no fryers are used in the cafeteria that serves guests, he told me in hushed tones that fried food was still served every day in the doctor’s dining room. Why? Otherwise the doctors might complain!
Forget about cancer-causing heterocyclic amines and advanced glycation-end products produced by frying, let’s not ruffle feathers with health professionals! I whipped out my phone and sent a second email to the chain of command, indicating how wrong-headed this policy was.
To the hospital’s credit, within 48 hours, the menu was redone — offering doctors either baked or fried selections. I plan to pressure them to drop the fried option in the next 30 days or I'll have to go vigilante again.
My War on Sausage & Bacon
To cap off the week, another hospital system where I provide care had been ignoring my war on bacon and sausage in the cafeteria.
Serving guests food items that raise the risk of heart disease by 70% and cancer by 40% is not conscionable. I had emailed many medical articles to the CEO to raise awareness of the scientifically proven link between processed meats and disease. Nothing happened, so I started writing notes on my Rx pad with messages like, “Beware, Bacon Kills.” I left these notes next to the offensive food for all guests to read. I posted pictures on social media sites, and emailed them to the CEO.
I was pleasantly pleased to receive a response thanking me for my crusade and assuring me that I could work with nutrition services to replace foods that harms with foods that heal immediately.
The Power Of Food Education
I attended two events this week demonstrating how empowering food education can be. One was a plant-based nutrition support group I co-founded for heart patients following the work of Drs. Ornish and Esselstyn. Nearly 100 people met to learn skills to succeed and reverse their disease. The other event was a meeting of 75 people completing a curriculum on plant based nutrition.
At both gatherings, people were nearly in tears describing their healthy weight loss, getting off medication, having more energy, and their newfound ability to make healthy choices. (Of note, neither event was hospital affiliated, the first was an independent group and the other was organized by a national healthy grocery chain.)
You Can Help
It's horrific and hypocritical that institutions dedicated to health care serve the same excess sugar, salt and fat-laden processed foods that caused 70% of the diseases being treated in the wards. It's akin to a driving instructor refusing to wear a seat belt and texting while driving. And don't even get me started on the fraud of serving ice cream and cakes to nurses celebrating Nurses’ Day, an Egg McMuffin to residents at conferences, or fried chicken nuggets to guests.
Of course, exceptions exist and within the last month UCLA hospitals announced they were serving only antibiotic-free meats and grass-fed beef. You can help move more institutions forward by sharing this article and joining me in speaking up. Share it with a doctor, hospital executive, or your local newspaper. Ask for a bigger salad bar with organic produce and non-GMO items, a juice and smoothie bar, an oatmeal bar, a veggie burger and stir fries, and fresh fruit. Health clubs are offering gluten free, organic and dairy free menus profitably so there is no excuse. We have an opportunity to use medical centers as a teaching environment showing that food can be nutritious and affordable and we can start together today.