“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”
Inhospitable health care
The thing about hospitals is that they’re generally intended to heal. In the midst of a health crisis, you turn to a team of professionals for urgent medical care and you rely on a nurturing environment that supports every aspect of your healing, right?
Unfortunately, the second half of that equation has been deeply overlooked in hospital settings, and dieticians have reported that the meals typically served in hospitals lack the nutrition necessary to support full recovery from a health crisis.
Due to increasingly drastic cuts to many nations’ public health systems over the past few decades, the budget for quality food has dried up like so many mashed potatoes under a heat lamp. CBC reported that the average amount spent per patient per day is $8—this includes breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks.
With typical examples of hospital meals including processed meats, sugary desserts and beverages, and unappetizing portions of thawed frozen vegetables, it’s no wonder that only 7% of nearly 400 children’s hospital meals tested in a 2012 American Pediatrics study were considered “healthy”. Meanwhile, 80,000 hospital meals went uneaten every day in England due to their extremely low palatability. This is an unfathomable waste!
Meanwhile, the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) published a report in 2015 documenting the number of hospitals in the US that house fast-food restaurants like McDonalds directly on their premises (20% of 208 hospitals surveyed). Here in Montreal, the Jewish General Hospital removed its cafeteria and replaced it with a food court of fast-food restaurants in 2016.
What does this mean for patients? Malnourished patients are at a higher risk of infections, pressure sores, pneumonia, falling, and longer recuperation times. Patients who don’t receive adequate nutrition were shown to stay 2-3 days longer, and were at higher risk of readmission within 30 days.
Sometimes, patients are fed foods that directly contradict the diets recommended to them by hospital dieticians. At other times, they’re given foods that have been undeniably linked with cancer— processed meats and red meat, estimated to be responsible for 20,000 cancer deaths per year worldwide.
As one England physician put it: “How did we allow this to happen? Throughout my medical training, we were taught that ‘prevention is better than cure.’ As health professionals, we cannot stay silent and allow this public health disaster in the making to continue.”
Veganism to the rescue
With nearly every hospital meal not only lacking in the variety and nutrient density that most vegans have come to expect from their diets but also containing eggs, meat or dairy, vegans have a hard time in hospitals. Everybody has the right to demand a vegetarian or vegan meal in hospitals, but the result often leaves a lot to be desired, with dinners sometimes consisting of canned vegetables on a bed of mashed potatoes. There is even a Facebook page where vegans share their “Hits and Misses” from recent hospital experiences.
But the medical world is waking up to the fact that veganism heals. Dieticians recommend that heart attack patients, for instance, eat more whole grains and vegetables and drastically reduce the amount of meat they consume. The PCRM website offers plentiful links to resources about veganism, tips about making the switch to a vegan or vegetarian diet, success stories from people who became vegan, vegan recipes, and evidence about the adverse health effects of a diet heavy in meat and dairy products.
For lovers of the environment, hospital stays can be painful in more ways than one—health care institutions are notoriously wasteful, due to sanitary requirements. All of those rubber gloves, disposable plastic medical instruments, surgical masks, and gowns add up. Vegan menu options are a great way to feel good about the hospital where you’re staying and to reduce your impact while you’re there.
Doctors demand that hospitals get out of the way of patient healing
Physicians have a tendency to claim, “Food is medicine”. After years of entering their post-surgical patients’ rooms to find them eating food items that hinder, not help, the healing process, many physicians are speaking up. “Just as cigarettes are banned from hospitals, why not do the same for meat, cheese, and other junk foods?” one PCRM physician asked.
In 2017, the American Medical Association issued a policy statement demanding the removal of sugary beverages and processed meats, and an increase in the availability of healthy, plant-based foods in hospitals. Some US hospitals have already begun to follow the recommendations set out in the report. Others, such as Portsmouth Hospital in the UK, even offer entire vegan menus.
The PCRM ranked 24 hospital food programs in the US by assigning points for healthy, plant-based options and revoking points for having fast food restaurants on campus and processed meat in their menus. Those that ranked highest participated in Meatless Mondays, offered plant-based entrees each day, and had rooftop gardens for patient meals.
It doesn’t need to hurt the bottom line. Shortening patient stays and avoiding post-surgical complications and readmissions are all shown to reduce hospital costs in the long run. As well, there are creative ways for hospitals to offer plant-based and tasty foods. Tried-and-true examples include rooftop gardens, on-site farmers’ markets, and skill-building partnerships with other sectors to train kitchen staff in easy plant-based recipes that can be made in high volumes.
Portugal leading the charge and bringing veganism into the public sphere
There are many great examples of initiatives that are increasing the quality of food in hospitals. Many individual hospitals have signed on to pledges and initiatives designed to revamp their menus and on-site food options in the near future, especially in the wake of the recent policy statement from the American Medical Association.
In Canada, the Nourish leadership program is working to develop new menus; shift purchasing patterns in Canadian hospitals; engage patients, staff, and families in decision-making about food options; develop institutional policies supporting food-as-medicine culture; and more.
But oh, does Portugal ever come through. Portugal smashes the boundaries of what we previously considered possible. When it comes to getting something done and getting it done fast, Portugal takes the vegan zucchini cake.
In 2016, the Portuguese Vegetarian Society circulated a petition to offer vegan food options in all public institutions—including hospitals. The petition garnered over 15,000 signatures and was subsequently addressed in Parliament. To the growing vegan population of Portugal’s elation, a new law was pushed through on March 3, 2017 that required all schools, university, hospitals, prisons, and other public institutions to provide food that is completely free of animal products within six months. This is groundbreaking progress—no other nation requires that vegan options be available in each and every one of their public institutions. It is also impressive given Portugal’s high volume of food waste from hospitals— this is a hopeful step in the right direction.
And if you are a vegan who has to spend some time in the healmobile for a time, here are some tips to help you through.
Way to go Portugal!
Do you have your own “hits or misses” as a vegan or vegetarian who has had to stay in a hospital? Let us know in the comments section!
What are other examples of ways in which what’s needed for humans and the planet to thrive are aligned?
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