This One Photo Reveals Something Disturbing About Our Hospitals

July 24th 2016

Aimee Kuvadia

Whether you're a hospital patient in the U.S., Canada, the U.K. — where a chef for the National Health Service anonymously told The Daily Mail that she wouldn't serve the hospital food she cooks to pigs — or any number of other countries, you likely understand why hospital cuisine has earned a bad rep.

It's not news that hospital food tends to fall under the barely edible category, but a tweet to obesity expert Dr. Yoni Freedhoff by Twitter user Daniel T. Nelson (@danieltnelson) really drives the point home. The post shows a meal his girlfriend's mother was given in a Texas hospital emergency room while being treated for atrial fibrillation, or an irregular heartbeat.

The food items pictured certainly don't look like things that would improve health. They include a sugar-packed fruit cup, Doritos, Oreos, a packet of full-fat mayonnaise, and a sandwich whose contents remain unknown.

When a couple of the hospital's dieticians were confronted about Freedhoff's photo of hospital food, they told him that "if our hospital offered something like an organic kale salad with a side of quinoa to some of our patients in the ER, there would be massive rioting.”

Freedhoff's tweet illustrates a huge contradiction: People are admitted to hospitals to recover from sickness. To recover from sickness, a healthy diet must be maintained. And scores of hospitals offer nothing in the way of good diets. So what are patients to do?

Unfortunately, most hospital food is far from healthy.

The nonprofit organization Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine released a 2015 report found that patient meals and hospital cafeteria offerings were nothing close to healthy most of the time. Food items were high in salt, sugar, and cholesterol, and contained processed meats, according to Shilpa Ravella of The Atlantic.

Another report, published in 2012 in the journal American Pediatrics, evaluated 12 California children's hospitals and found that only 7 percent of the 384 meals examined could be considered healthy.


Breakfast part 2 #hospitalfood #breakfast #lchf

A photo posted by Melissa (@_goodnessgoddess_) on


Ravella, an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University, recounted the moment she realized something was seriously wrong with hospitals' approach to food:

"At one point during my gastroenterology fellowship, I cared for a patient who was suffering from Crohn’s disease, which causes inflammation of the gut. He was having bloody diarrhea several times a day ... He was still well enough to eat, though, and his appetite didn’t appear to be affected. One day, I came into his room to find him starting on the hospital lunch of the day: chicken wings with hot sauce, creamy mashed potatoes, chocolate cake, and a soda — more or less the opposite of what a patient with gastrointestinal issues should be ingesting."

Adding insult to injury, scores of hospitals and medical facilities flaunt fast-food chains inside their establishments. In 2015, 208 hospitals, many of which are the recipients of federal funding, were surveyed and 20 percent of them housed these kinds of unhealthy food spots: five Chick-fil-A restaurants, 18 Wendy’s, and 20 McDonald’s, The Huffington Post reported.

If it's the steeper costs associated with local, organic, and healthy food items hospitals are fretting about, they should story worrying.

As Motherboard reports, healthy cuisine can potentially cut costs in the long run more than processed meats and sugar-laced goods. The article pointed to a Detroit health system, which saved almost $30,000 by tossing out deep fryers and opting for healthier fare.

Some hospitals, however, aren't discounting the relationship between recovery from sickness and nutrition and diet. For instance, the medical center at the University of California, Los Angeles, now serves organic food. And John Muir Medical Center, also in California, updated its menu to include such items as brown rice, quinoa, hormone-free dairy, and antibiotic-free meat, according to the U.S. News & World Report.

Others are putting themselves in the patients' shoes. A hospital in Ottawa, Canada, decided to revamp its menu after administrators ate a week's worth of meals served to their patients.

Interestingly, the culprits behind unhealthy hospital food may be doctors themselves and their affinity for junk food, Motherboard points out.

Karen Smith, an adviser at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and a registered dietician at Barnard Medical Center in Washington, D.C., told Motherboard:

“There is a slow but gaining trend in hospitals providing more nutritious foods and plant-based options, but it certainly isn’t the majority at the moment. You need to have physicians being the leaders in this.”