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Hospital Food and the Cycle of Disease

Posted Jan 06 2010 2:00am

“He’s not going to eat that! What is that?” I demanded.

“Banana cream pie,” the nurse said.

“You’re serving banana cream pie in a heart hospital?”

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. My father had just suffered a serious and debilitating stroke the night before. He was under critical care in one of the country’s leading heart hospitals. And once he was cleared to eat, the first meal they brought was turkey and gravy, mashed potatoes, a white dinner roll and a heaping helping of banana cream pie.

If you’re a bit hungry right now, that might sound delicious. But I probably don’t have to convince you that it is not optimal nutrition for a recovering stroke patient.

The night before, I had received the kind of call we all dread. It was serious and I needed to board a flight right away. I knew that my Dad was in the care of expert physicians and that they were using the best emergency medicine to stabilize his condition. And I knew that there was nothing I could do right away.

But I also knew that my Dad needed therapeutic nutrition… and fast. The damage from a stroke can cause a tremendous amount of oxidative stress and inflammation in the brain. I knew he needed a powerful regimen of anti-oxidants, omega-3 fatty acids and B-vitamins. I knew that he would need healthy and nutrient-dense food to support his recovery.

And I was acutely aware that the last thing he needed were foods that actually promote oxidation and inflammation – the same foods that promote the very disease he was suffering from. I guess I was naïve at the time, but I assumed that the hospital would have the same awareness. I was wrong.

Hospital food has been the butt of many jokes over the years (though perhaps not as many as the airline industry). I was well aware that the food has a reputation for being bland and tasteless. I didn’t expect it to be appetizing. But I had no idea it was so clearly unhealthy.

I had hoped that healthcare organizations would treat food as medicine that protects the health of their patients. At the very least, I expected hospitals to abide by the same oath that is supposed to guide doctors, “First, do no harm.” Unfortunately, that is not the case.

In the days I spent with my father in the cardiac and neurological recovery unit, I saw bagels and cereal… juices made with high-fructose corn syrup… cakes and pies… hormone-pumped conventional meats covered with white flour gravy… macaroni and fake cheese… bleached-white dinner rolls… French fries… and a few overcooked, pesticide-ridden vegetables.

In other words, the very same highly-processed, nutritionally-depleted, chemically-enhanced “foods” that are causing an epidemic of obesity and disease and filling the rooms of hospitals from coast to coast.

Thankfully, there are organizations drawing attention to this issue. In 2006, the Center for Science in the Public Interest tested French fries from 14 top-ranked hospitals and six leading children’s hospitals. They found that all 20 of these institutions used hydrogenated oil (trans-fat) to fry the potatoes.

If you’re not aware, hydrogenated oil is one of the most dangerous ingredients in the food supply. The Institute of Medicine has stated that there is “no safe level to consume.” The city of New York has banned it in restaurants. And yet, most of the “top” hospitals in the country are still dishing it out to patients, employees and visitors alike.

The American Diabetes Association also sounded the alarm in a recent report. They state that in some institutions hospitality carts are “wheeled into patient care areas and snack foods and beverages are sold, making adherence to a structured carbohydrate and nutrient intake more difficult.”

The American Medical Student Association conducted a survey of 234 hospitals in the U.S. They found that almost half of them allowed brand-name fast food companies to operate in their facilities.

The hospitals have said that they are facing budget cuts and other crises. They need the money they get from those fast-food leases. And the institutionalized foods they serve – often contracted by the same companies that provide food service to prisons – are easier to manage and cheaper than foods prepared from scratch. If they want to stay in business, they have to focus on producing the highest volume of food for the lowest cost.

Most hospital bills go to the insurance company. The patients don’t even see them. And they certainly don’t see every detail itemized. But if you did see those details, I guarantee you the daily portion for food would be far more than you would pay in a fine restaurant. With the amount of money it costs to stay in a hospital, patients have every right to expect food that is healthy and nutritious.

And some institutions are proving that you can run a profitable operation and still serve healthy food. These organizations are also focused on the true costs of unhealthy, processed foods – the cost we pay in disease and ill health.

Kaiser Permanente, one of the country’s largest health systems, hosts weekly farmers’ markets at 29 of their hospitals. They have also switched to milk from cows raised without synthetic hormones. St. Luke’s Hospital in Minnesota and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia serve organic fruits and vegetables. And the Good Shepherd Health Care System in Oregon banned potato chips in favor of baby carrots. They also replaced conventional beef on their menu with antibiotic- and hormone-free bison.

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The primary organization paving the way for this movement is called Health Care Without Harm. They are a global coalition in more than 50 countries, dedicated to transforming the healthcare sector. Healthy Food in Health Care is one of their campaigns.

The co-founder of the organization is Gary Cohen. In a recent interview he said, “Here we are with 60 million Americans who are obese and 120 million who are overweight and we’re feeding people in hospitals food that contributes to obesity. Stuff like that just amazes me.” Well, it amazes me too.

And it is just one more piece of evidence that the practice of medicine has become the business of medicine. Good doctors care about their patients on a personal level. But faceless hospital organizations don’t care in the same way. They don’t see the patients who come through their doors as people who need to be healed. They seem them as profit centers. The goal is to extract as much as possible for their services, while paying as little as possible to provide them.

And if that patient remains unwell and has to return, more profits for the system. The cycle of disease continues. This is not a sinister conspiracy. But it is exactly how the system works.

Consumer health advocate, Mike Adams said it well when he wrote, “The failure of hospitals to provide fresh, healing foods to patients is indicative of the utter failure of western medicine to help patients improve their health at all.”

Unfortunately, most hospitals are not places of healthcare. They are places of sick care. And the food they serve is a telling reflection of our entire health system. Case in point: the national healthcare debate. The debate is not about how to make people healthier or prevent illness in the first place. The debate is about who is going to pay for our sick care and how the profits will be divided between Big Pharma, Big Insurance and Big Healthcare.

Jon Herring
Editorial Director
Total Health Breakthroughs

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