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Children's Hospitals Serve Unhealthy Food


People often make jokes about the food served in hospitals, but a new study points out that not only is hospital food not a laughing matter, it’s also unhealthy. An analysis of children’s hospitals in California found that more than 90% of the entrees served involved unhealthy food.

Some hospital food is worse than fast food

A collaborative effort between researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and the RAND Corporation resulted in an evaluation of 14 food venues at 12 major children’s hospitals in California to identify the quality of food served. The findings were not promising and did not present the hospitals as role models for healthy fare.

In fact, “the food in many hospitals is no better—and in some cases worse—that what you would find in a fast food restaurant.” Those are the words of Dr. Lenard Lesser, the study’s primary investigator and a physician in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Clinical Scholars Program in the Department of Family Medicine, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

The reviewers evaluated 359 entrees served at the hospitals and rated them using a modified version of the Nutrition Environment Measures Scale for Restaurants. The NEMS-R considers availability of vegetables, nutrition labeling, healthy beverages, pricing, and combo promotions and is used to rate food in hospital cafeterias.

Overall, the 14 food venues scored 19.1 out of 37 (0 being least healthy, 37 most healthy). However, only 7% of the entrees were classified as healthy. Although nearly all the hospitals offered healthy alternatives such as fruit, 81% enticed people with high-sugar foods such as ice cream and cookies near the cash register and only 25% served whole wheat bread.

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Salads can be a healthy meal choice, yet 44% of the children’s hospital food venues did not have low-calorie salad dressings. Half the hospitals did not even give any sign they offered healthy entrees, and less than one third provided any nutrition information or signs to promote healthful foods.

There is some good news, however. Since the survey was conducted in July 2010 and hospital administrators were given their scores, some of the children’s hospitals have made changes to their food offerings. Among the improvements are elimination of fried foods and/or sugary beverages, lower prices on salads, and higher prices for sugary beverages.

The reviewers also offered some suggestions for the children’s hospitals, including providing more fruits, vegetables, and whole grain items, offering smaller portions, and promoting healthy eating habits by displaying nutritional information and eliminating high-calorie, high-sugar items from the checkout area.

Lesser noted that improving the food offerings in hospitals, especially children’s hospitals, can be a step toward improving the health of food in the greater community. “By serving as role models for healthy eating,” he said, “we can make a small step toward helping children prevent the onset of dietary-related chronic diseases,” such as type 2 diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure, all of which are becoming more common among children and adolescents.

UCLA Health Sciences/EurekAlert

Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons