Eight reasons why hospital food needs a nutritious makeover

by | Sep 21, 2012

Some of the nation’s biggest health centers are serving up disease-promoting foods that have outrageous amounts of sodium, fat and cholesterol. You probably wouldn’t think to stop into a hospital for an artery-clogging fried chicken sandwich. But it turns out that medical centers across the country serve up the kind of fatty fare that contributes to heart disease, diabetes, and other conditions that can land people in the hospital in the first place. Two large, nationwide surveys (one in 2005, the other in 2011) by the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) show that although some health centers are making modest efforts to improve nutrition, there are many others with patient menus dominated by fat, sodium and cholesterol – and even a handful that house fast-food chains.

In the PCRM’s 2005 report, all 25 hospitals surveyed offered at least one reduced-fat entree or side dish daily, but the top-selling item at 24 percent of hospitals was fried chicken, and hamburgers sold best at 12 percent of hospitals.

Even when hospitals were asked to submit the recipe for the “healthiest” main dish served in its cafeteria, 62 percent of the dishes derived more than 30 percent of calories from fat. Some meals, like baked chicken, chicken cacciatore, pork carnitas, and meatloaf, derived more than 50 percent of calories from fat. A food is considered high in fat if more than 20 percent of the calories in one serving come from fat, according to the USDA. “Fat is the most concentrated source of fuel coming into the body,” says Constance Brown-Riggs, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “A diet high in fat translates to increased caloric intake, a risk factor for obesity.” A high-fat diet also puts you at risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and certain cancers.

Fast food is typically high in sodium, saturated fat, and cholesterol, and regular consumption is directly related to obesity and type 2 diabetes – and health centers house as many as five of the joints. Inside the Medical University of South Carolina hospital complex in Charleston, SC, for instance, patients, visitors and staff can pick up food at Chick-fil-A, Baja Fresh, Casa Vida pizza, Subway, and “The Grill,” which offers grab-and-go burgers and fries. The cafeteria menu doesn’t fare much better. When we took a peek, we spotted items like buffalo-style chicken wings (730 calories, 26 grams fat) and Mediterranean chicken Caesar salad (800 calories, 66 grams fat). Meanwhile, Texas Medical Center’s St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital building – home to the Texas Heart Institute and the Texas Children’s Hospital – has four fast food establishments, including a McDonald’s and a Chick-fil-A. Ironically, St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital is ranked sixth in the nation for cardiology and heart surgery, according to US News and World Report.

Cafeteria offerings in children’s hospitals could also be healthier. Researchers at UCLA and the RAND Corp., a nonprofit research organization, analyzed 384 entrees and sandwiches sold at 14 major children’s hospitals in California, including the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles. Comparing the food against criteria that’s used to evaluate the healthfulness of restaurant fare, only 7 percent of the food served in California’s children’s hospitals could be classified as healthy.

Despite the health-boosting benefits of a diet low in saturated and trans fats, less than one-third of the hospitals surveyed in PCRM’s 2005 report offered either a salad bar or a vegetable-based entree daily, and across the board, chicken, hamburgers, and meatloaf were top sellers.

In UCLA and Rand Corp.’s analysis of California children’s hospitals, less than a third of cafeterias made nutrition information available on menus. Two-thirds of the hospitals that PCRM surveyed didn’t denote healthier choices on their menus, despite the fact that research shows providing nutrition information helps people make better food choices.

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