Healthcare News & Insights

Hospitals join initiative to serve healthier food

Since I’ve never been hospitalized, I don’t have any experience with hospital food — but I’ve heard it’s awful. And when my daughter was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease last year and spent a week in a prominent children’s hospital, I was shocked at what she was allowed to eat.

Due to her condition, she was on a restricted diet. But I was amazed that she could still get pizza, chicken nuggets, cookies, french fries, milk shakes and cinnamon buns. The only request turned down was sausage for breakfast.

Sure, there were restrictions like no nuts or seeds, and only low fiber foods until they got her condition under control. But I was amazed at the unhealthy food this well-respected institute served to patients, let alone a Crohn’s patient.

And I won’t even get into what the hospital served in its cafeteria. After a few days of eating its food, I felt like I needed a cardiac specialist. Funny thing was, there were a few “healthier” offerings, but they were at the end of the cafeteria line. So if you were new there, like I was, you already had picked up food by the time you got to them. And you know once you touch something, you have to eat it!

But all I could think was, “Aren’t hospitals supposed to serve nutritious food?”

Nutritional makeover

Well, it looks like I’m not the only person thinking hospital fare needs a makeover.

The Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA) is devoted to working with the private sector to ensure the health of our nation’s youth by solving the childhood obesity crisis. One of its goals is to get hospitals — pediatric and regular facilities — to serve healthier foods on their menus and in their cafeteria.

Recently, PHA announced that 400 hospitals, which use Morrison Healthcare Food Services, are joining PHA’s program to offer healthier food to their patients, employees and visitors. That makes a total of 550 facilities currently taking part in the hospital health initiative.

Participation in the initiative means the hospitals promise to:

  • Offer healthier, lower calorie meals on patient menus and in cafeterias that meet specific nutrition standards at the same price as other meals
  • Increase the amount of fruits and vegetables offered
  • Offer healthy beverages such as water, 100% fruit juice, unflavored low-fat and fat-free milk, teas and coffee
  • Stop offering deep-fried foods, and
  • Offer only healthy foods next to cash registers, instead of candy and salty snack foods.

PHA’s goal with the hospital initiative is “to highlight healthier options, especially in hospital settings where you’d expect to have the healthiest options available to you,” endocrinologist James Gavin, chair of PHA’s board of directors, told USA Today. “Hospitals should be leading the charge to improve nutrition.”

Stealth-health approach

Getting some adults and a lot of children to eat healthier, even in a hospital, isn’t an easy feat. That’s why people like Courtenay August, director of food and nutrition services for Morrison at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, have been working hard at improving the nutritional quality of meals … and disguising them.

August calls it the stealth-health approach.

For example, the hospital offers a gluten-free chocolate cake made with cocoa powder and a high fiber black-bean paste that patients can’t taste. “It’s like a regular chocolate cake,” said August. “You would never guess it has black beans in it.”

The cake isn’t marketed as healthier, either — hence the stealth-health approach.

Other offerings healthier offerings include:

One sugary option that won’t be going away is good old Jell-O. Anita Widmayer, director of food and nutrition services for Kaiser Permanente Orange County, told USA Today, “A lot of people still need the sugary Jell-O, particularly if they’re on a clear-liquid diet.”


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