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Is Hospital Food Getting Healthier?

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By Jennifer Larson, contributor 

March 15, 2013 - On your last trip to the hospital cafeteria, was it easy to find a healthy food option?  Believe it or not, hospital food is getting healthier, thanks to the combined efforts of administrators, hospital food service directors, and others interested in setting a good example for patients, staff, visitors and others in the community.

More hospitals and health care systems are choosing to offer healthier food choices: some are refining their cafeteria options and reducing the amount of unhealthy food that’s available throughout the facility, while others are establishing on-site farmer’s markets to provide easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

Susan Levin says hospitals should be role models for healthy food options
Susan Levin, MS, RD, director of nutrition education at PCRM, hospitals have an obligation to educate people about healthy eating and its role in chronic disease prevention.

“I do think the trend in hospitals is toward having more healthful offerings, on the patient side and in the staff and guest cafeterias,” said Susan Levin, MS, RD, director of nutrition education at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. “That’s great news.”

“But,” she added, “there is a lot of room for growth.”

Hospital food improving, but… 

To date, more than 400 hospitals have joined the Partnership for a Healthier America, or PHA.
One of PHA’s partners, Morrison Healthcare Food Services, recently announced it is expanding its nutrition standards for its hospital clients, with the goal of helping at least 60 percent meet the standards to improve the nutrition of patient meals and the food served in the cafeterias by 2017. The hospitals will have to jettison their deep fryers, label foods and increase the percentage of fruits, vegetables and healthy beverages they sell.

But there are still many hospitals that could stand to improve. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine has analyzed food served by hospitals in all 50 states and found that many of them still serve too much unhealthful food, landing the worst offenders on lists of The Five Worst Hospital Food Environments and The Worst Children’s Hospital Food Environments. One major factor: many of them have multiple fast food outlets onsite.

“Having these fast food outlets in cafeterias is a terrible setback to not only the customers’ health, but also the perception that the hospital knows anything about health and nutrition’s role in it,” said Levin.

Organizations such as Health Care Without Harm strongly advocate for hospitals to embrace the opportunity to provide healthier food options, referencing the growing evidence of the relationship between poor nutrition and chronic health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.

“Hospitals and health systems have opportunities to help prevent these food-related health concerns by modeling good nutrition in their institutions and by influencing how food is produced and distributed,” the organization stated in a paper titled “Food and Food Purchasing: A Role for Health Care.”

Making healthy food options easier to see, grab and go 

There’s no guesswork involved when trying to pick the healthiest food at Massachusetts General Hospital. The hospital labels the food in its cafeteria with red, yellow and green triangles: the green signals that the item is among the healthiest choices--such as the fruits, vegetables and lean meats--while the yellow label means less healthy, and red warns the hungry person that the food has little or no nutritional value.

The labeling system is all about making it easy for people to immediately understand which choices are best. It was initially launched as part of a two-phase intervention that also included a “choice architecture” that entailed placing healthy foods in locations with maximum visibility and the healthy drinks at eye level in the beverage refrigerator.

Researchers found that sales of healthy food increased as a result, and the results were published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2012. And since the changes were so successful, they stayed in place, said Anne Thorndike, MD, MPH, one of the study’s authors.

“I’m really convinced that this is something that is relatively easy to do and it makes a difference for people,” she said.  “The whole idea is that people are in a rush. They don’t want to spend a lot of time thinking about what choices to make, and they’re glad to see that sandwich with a green label.”

Unusual ways of putting healthier food within reach  

Some hospitals have gone above and beyond in their efforts to put healthy food within reach of patients, staff and the community.

CNO Karen Harris said her hospital promotes healthy food and lifestyles
Karen Harris, RN, CNO of Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital, said her hospital wants to promote healthy lifestyles; "It's that vision for who we are and what we want to try to achieve."

“You have to sometimes think creatively,” said Karen Harris, RN, chief nursing officer for Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital in Michigan.

Her hospital not only offers regular healthy cooking classes with a professional chef, but it now has its own hydroponic greenhouse, where fresh organic produce can be grown and utilized year-round.  Resident farmer and food expert Michelle Lutz oversees the growth of kale, Swiss chard, peppers and other vegetables, which are then made available for the chefs in the hospital’s kitchen. That tomato you see growing in the greenhouse might just be on your plate less than 24 hours later.

The food “is so flavorful,” Harris said. “You can really tell the difference.”

The leaders at Truman Medical Centers in Kansas City, Mo., are also trying to keep their larger community in mind when they address the issue of healthy food--so they’re taking the concept far beyond the cafeteria walls. The health system is preparing to open a 35,000-square-foot grocery store in an effort to expand people’s access to healthier food in Kansas City.

John Bluford, president and CEO, called this a “thinking-out-of-the-bed model” because of its focus on prevention; it works to actually help people stay out of the hospital in the first place.

“We know that many people in the urban core do not have access to high quality, healthy food choices,” said Bluford. “This lack of access to healthy options eventually leads to the development of chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and obesity.”

Related articles:
Hospital Food Goes Healthy Gourmet
Nurses and Nutrition: You CAN Eat Right at Work 


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