Come for the Treatment, Stay for the Food

By Raj Trikha, M.S. and PhD student in Human Nutrition at Colorado State University

Can you imagine living the rest of your life with constant pain, an ailment, or a disorder? Unfortunately, that’s how a staggering amount of Americans live – chronic disease affects over half of all Americans. It kills 1.7 million Americans each year and is responsible for 7/10 deaths.

What if there was a straightforward way to reduce your risk of developing a chronic disease? There actually is, but it is not a pill, nor is it even a secret. It is food. 

Studies have shown that eating a healthy diet can reduce the development of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease; even Alzheimer’s disease is being linked to nutrition. Thanks to the constant back-and-forth of nutrition research, knowing what to eat is not always obvious. But knowing what not to eat is a bit simpler: Avoid ultra-processed foods like breakfast meats, premade desserts, and sugar-sweetened beverages, which actually correlate with chronic disease. Most people are working to reduce their consumption of these processed foods.

 So why aren’t hospitals?

No one goes to the hospital for the food – at least I’ve never met anyone who has – but that doesn’t mean hospitals should serve low-quality food. More than 1 in 3 Children’s Hospitals host fast-food chains. Which is odd, when you think about it. Aren’t hospitals filled with individuals who value and strive to improve the health of the public? 

Hospitals don’t feed their patients ultra-processed and sugar-sweetened food and drink to spite them. Nor do they do it to get them to stay longer. They do it for financial reasons; fast-food chains are incredibly profitable. More so, they signed contracts with the hospitals obliging them to share the profits. It’s a win-win!

But not for the patient. Studies indicate that more than half of the typical American diet consists of ultra-processed foods, which is exactly what fast food is. Added sugar, fat, and salt are all included in excess in the delicious Big Mac with extra fries and a large soda. And serving it to patients isn’t going to help them, even during their brief stay.

But are hospitals really going to give up the financial incentives of housing fast-food restaurants in favor of purchasing better quality food?

Luckily, the answer is increasingly yes.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine doesn’t believe that it is ethical to serve food that is directly harming their patients while they are at the hospital. And many hospitals are following suit. Most are incorporating more plant-based meals – for instance, utilizing a 60/40 beef/mushroom blend instead of simply ground beef. They are purchasing locally and sustainably grown food. And some are even including onsite gardens and farmer’s markets!

There are still many hurdles, primarily financial snags, that still must be worked out. However, the cost of caring for patients vastly outweighs the cost of purchasing healthy food that is slightly more expensive than ultra-processed and prepackaged food.

Maybe one day, people will be coming to hospitals solely for the food; not leaving early because of it. 

Peer-edited by Gabrielle Dardis

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