Eating Well to Get Well: The Hospital Food Challenge

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Pile of healthy vegetables

Caregivers and patients in a hospital have a common struggle: finding something genuinely healthy to eat. Until recently, the food available to patients and hospital staff looked very much like the standard American diet outside of hospitals: highly processed, quick and easy to prepare, and generally short on nutrition but high on salt, sugar, and fat. The effect of this convenience-first approach to diet has been clear for some time: nearly a third of American adults are obese, and many of the leading causes for hospitalization are conditions related to obesity, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and many forms of cancer.2 But while it is clear that diet is implicated in causing this state of affairs, hospitals have not been putting diet first in helping patients recover.

Hospitals often default to fast food-quality meals (or actual fast-food restaurants) for the same reasons as millions of consumers: cost, convenience, and habit. When it comes to sourcing ingredients and stocking their kitchens, fresh produce and whole foods have lost ground to items that come off of an assembly line rather than from a garden.

Patients are frequently limited to ordering their meals from the hospital cafeteria, meaning that if hospitals compromise on nutrition, patients have few alternatives. Likewise, doctors, nurses, and other hospital staff are constrained by their schedules and caregiving duties, putting a premium on anything portable, quick, and filling. Failing that, anything that provides even a short term boost of energy will do. Vending machines stocked with candy and snack foods are used frequently, and many hospitals even allow fast-food chains to set up shop inside, catering to patients and providers alike.

Fortunately, some of the same trends moving consumers away from the drive-thrus and microwave meals are also catching on among hospitals. The “buy local” movement, for example, is beginning to influence where hospital cafeterias get their food. By partnering with local farmers and producers, clinics are able to deliver fresh fruits and vegetables to patients and providers alike, while promoting local businesses and healthier diets.

Some enterprising clinics take this even further, having their chefs coordinate with local farmers to create whole menus that take advantage of seasonal ingredients, connecting patients to their food and their community at the same time. Such programs have proven so popular, they are beginning to expand beyond the walls of the hospital, with nutritionists and physicians following up with patients to ensure they are continuing to eat better and make lasting changes to their diets.

Although it can look more expensive upfront, there is actually a financial benefit to serving fresher, more nutritious food from hospital cafeterias. Integrating fast food and similar items teaches patients that such dietary choices are acceptable in their own lives. This trend compromises population health and can lead to unnecessary hospitalizations or even readmissions, a major contributor to rising healthcare costs.

Serving healthier, fresher meals teaches a different lesson and emphasizes the importance of following a balanced, nutritionally sound diet. When patients see what healthy eating looks and feels like in practice, it not only helps them heal but can encourage them to change their habits outside of the hospital. In their own lives. This ultimately helps the bottom line of hospitals by facilitating greater population health, especially when providers follow up with patients outside of the hospital to keep them on track and avoid readmissions.

Healthier cafeteria options also allow caregivers to practice what they preach, as they have a convenient alternative to vending machines and fast food meals. When doctors and nurses have the support they need to care for themselves, they are able to provide better care to their patients. This model demonstrates how becoming a nurse practitioner can facilitate self-care as well as providing care to others.

Even as medical science and technology continues to evolve, quality healthcare still starts with a good diet. Thanks to the success of new farm to table and similar programs, hospitals are beginning to pay more attention to the food they serve to their staff as well as their patients and are saving money while saving lives as a result.


The Atlantic, “When the Hospital Serves McDonald’s”
Healthcare Cost and utilization Project, “Obesity-related Hospitalizations, 2004 versus 2009”
U.S. News & World Report, “How Healthy is Hospital Food?”

The Online Journal of Issues in Nursing, “Healthy Eating for Healthy Nurses: Nutrition Basics to Promote Health for Nurses and Patients”