Donna Smith, American SiCKO, is executive director of the Health Care for All Colorado Foundation
My mom said it. Her mom said it. I have even repeated it to my own children. “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” Yet as patients, healthcare professionals, and others who eat in our healthcare facilities around the country may notice, eating healthy fare – including apples – isn’t promoted among the food offerings in cafeterias or on patient food service trays. Often the most readily available foods in our healthcare facilities are laden partially or wholly processed foods with unhealthy levels of salt, sugar, and/or fat.
Why is it that healthy, nutrient rich foods are often more difficult to find at healthcare facilities when the rising levels of heart disease, Type II diabetes, and other serious health issues have at their core at least some component of nutritional trouble?
We are told bad food habits in America contribute to obesity and the health issues that often flow from our unhealthy eating habits, yet our health providers are complicit in making sure those bad eating habits are reinforced. What is that all about? Job security? Do our providers really want us to be healthier?
Another phrase my mom used to banter about was, “Do as I do, not as I say.” Well said, Mom. So when I recently saw a toddler reaching into the donut case as her breakfast choice at one of our leading hospitals, should I have blamed her mother for allowing her child to eat the high sugar, high fat, low nutrient offering? Or might I wonder why a leading hospital chooses to have a donut case at the front lines of the cafeteria like the candy counters at the grocery stores? Why encourage bad eating?
In that same hospital cafeteria where the toddler poked the donuts one by one with her index finger before finally choosing one (I am not making that up), the section with fresh fruit and whole grain cereals and other healthy choices was in the back, darkly lit section. Why wouldn’t we put the fresh fruit up front and remove the ice cream and other frozen, sugar treat coolers? Many hospitals and clinics also have big fried food stations, pizza counters, and their own burger stands. Why? Why sell saturated fat? Why sell processed foods?
For the life of me – really for my life and yours – I cannot imagine a good reason for our healthcare providers to serve unhealthy foods.
I know a great deal of focus on improving nutrition has been aimed at school cafeterias and food services across the country, and rightly so. But as a patient and caregiver who has seen many of this nation’s most prestigious healthcare centers, I promise the food offerings are at least as unhealthy as we might find in many of our schools. And I would argue it is an assault on any message those providers may offer about their desire to heal the human body when what is offered in their own facilities so clearly harms the bodies they claim to serve.
Once I mentioned this problem to my doctor and her staff after I had been an in-patient at a local, highly renowned hospital. I found it nearly impossible to get healthy food I could swallow after my surgery. Soft food offerings were processed and sugary puddings, salted broths and soups, sugary, colored gelatins – nothing on my tray resembled anything healthy. One young nurse finally brought me unsweetened applesauce, which became my diet for the rest of my stay. My doctor’s staff told me that they had already complained to the administration about the food service since they are often captive to what is offered when emergencies or long shifts make it impossible to break away and jaunt to some other place for healthy foods.
So, why shouldn’t we expect our healthcare institutions to support good health through nutrition? Are they making more money selling inexpensive offerings? Probably. Is it easier to store processed foods laden with preservatives? Sure. But none of that seems reason enough for me to have the places where doctors who take an oath to “do no harm” allow the foods served to do just that. It’s wrong.
Our healthcare facilities should only offer healthy foods. If there are those patients or visitors who for some reason require a slice of pizza or a hamburger, on those rare occasions the hospital’s food service director could make special accommodations for that. It should be so hard for a healthy diet to be accommodated – like it was for me during my recent hospital stay.
My husband’s grandmother used to tell me, “You can choose to put money in the grocery cart or you can pay the doctor.” She told me that when my kids were very young. I fed my family as well as I could, and aside from colds and an occasional flu bug, my kids were remarkably healthy with strong teeth and very few hospitalizations over the 25 years I was raising them. I slipped into some bad patterns myself when I would eat fast foods or junk foods, and my health suffered whenever I did.
So, what to do? I plan to speak up about the inconsistency that is so plain to me in the messages offered by our medical-industrial complex. Our healthcare facilities and providers are contributing to our epidemic of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. They are more than complicit; they are active participants in the horrendous cycle. Healthful foods – whether on the patient trays or in the cafeterias – should be the rule. The health providers should set the example by which we will live not serve the foods by which we will die. Rise up.
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