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Setting the example on healthy eating

Posted by Mark Ryan, MD December 6, 2011 at 11:04 AM

According to this report from America’s Health Rankings, 27.5% of Americans are now officially obese.  This percentage has increased dramatically since the early 1990s.  Given that obesity is connected to increased risks of diabetes, high blood, pressure, and numerous other illnesses, this trend is very concerning.  Health care professionals have been searching for effective ways to address this problem, but the very nature of obesity–the fact that is is a result of complicated interactions between social conditions, heredity, etc–makes fixing the problem a challenging task.

It appears, however, that our healthcare system is not helping the problem as much as we might like to believe.  Even as our hospitals care for patients with complications of diabetes, heart disease, and blood pressure, our hospital cafeterias offer foods that are notably unhealthy and high in calories.  Those of us in health care have seen what is for sale in our cafeterias: fried chicken, french fries, etc.  Now, there is a report that provides a broader perspective on just how unhealthy our hospital cafeteria food choices really are.

Dr. Lenard Lesser, an active member of the NPA, is the primary investigator on a just-released UCLA and Rand Corporation study of food choices in childrens’ hospitals’ cafeterias.  The higlights (or lowlights?) of the study included easy access to high-calorie, low-nutrient foods (such as cookies, ice cream and snacks) and less access to healthy choices (whole wheat bread, low-fat salad dressings).  The article above quotes Dr. Lesser, “Unfortunately, the food in many hospitals is no better — and in some cases worse — than what you would find in a fast food restaurant.”

This is absurd.  Health care providers–physicians, nurses, etc.–should be setting the example for our patients regarding health promotion.  We promote screenings for breast cancer, colon cancer; we remind patients when they are due for their pap smears; we screen for high blood pressure…all while offering food in our own medical centers that is unhealthy and contradicts our efforts to make people healthier.

NPA has developed a list of recommendations to encourage hospitals to offer healthier meals and better food options.  This list really is not all that complicated–but it would take a will and desire from hospital administrators to effect the change called for in these recommendations.  It would also mean that hospitals would need to reconsider whether it is appropriate to have fast food outlets incorporated into hospital cafeterias: these might increase profits for the hospitals in the short term, but they directly contradict our efforts to improve individual and community health in the long run.

So, we encourage all of you to read the recommendations for healthier hospital foods.  Use them in your own meal planning and grocery shopping–odds are good that these recommendations can help identify changes we can make at home.  If you are in the hospital–as a patient, visitor, or at work–look for and call for healthier choices.  Finally, engage your hospital’s leadership on this issue: we need to set an example of healthy food and food choices if we are to be credible and effective in our efforts to reduce obesity and obesity-related diseases.

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