The Paradox of Hospital Food

The Paradox of Hospital Food

unhealthy hospital meal
What is perplexing is that hospitals are promoting unhealthy foods to hospital employees, patients and visitors, while simultaneously so concerned about staff and patient influenza infections that they are mandating flu shots for employees and firing those who don’t comply…

A few months ago, I visited a cancer patient at a reputable hospital—an experience that completely altered my perspective on our healthcare system. Hippocrates, also known as the “Father of Western Medicine” once said, Let food be thy medicine and medicine thy food.However, this is far from what you will find practiced in many American hospitals. I observed a meal being served to a patient. The meal consisted of fake mashed potatoes, canned peas, a piece of processed turkey with gravy and a container of green colored jello.

Many hospital meals are typically packed with sodium, sugar and trans fats—all of which are damaging to the healthiest of people, let alone ill patients. One would assume that hospital food would reflect a commitment to good nutrition, but this is hardly the case. This experience sparked my curiosity regarding hospital food administration.

Unhealthy Menus Putting Patients At Risk

Patients usually end up in a hospital because of a medical emergency—either a sudden traumatic injury, a stroke or heart attack, complications from an acute infection or they are suffering from a chronic illness, such as cancer, kidney or lung disease or other debilitating diseases. It is concerning enough that many  children and adults in America do not meet their daily recommendations of fruits and vegetables,1 but serving hospital patients unhealthy food is just plain paradoxical. When patients are sick and trying to get well, it doesn’t make sense to serve them unhealthy food. It certainly counteracts the efforts of doctors to try and re-establish the health of patients.

Although hospitals are primarily for treating medical emergencies, nutritious food is an integral part of the healing process. So, ideally, hospitals should be a place for patients to learn about the importance of good nutrition. Obviously, a short hospital stay may not dramatically alter one’s eating habits, but it could offer a good educational opportunity to begin to influence change.

It isn’t exactly new knowledge that a predominantly plant-based diet with minimal processed foods and low amounts of sugar and no trans fats is optimal for health promotion and disease prevention.2 This is what makes the whole issue of hospital food and its questionable health benefits so odd.

Although specific data on food served to patients at hospitals in the United States is outdated, there have been some initiatives to raise the standards of hospital meals,3 but they have made limited progress. One of the problems, of course, is that corporations that own and operate many of the hospitals in the U.S. are cutting costs and food budgets are under constant pressure. Food is generally seen as an expense rather than a necessary treatment.4

Fast Food at Hospitals is an Ethical Issue

If there is any place that health promotion should be of utmost importance for patients, employees and visitors, it should be in the healthcare field, particularly hospitals. Hospital cafeterias are known for serving hamburgers, chicken wings, and pizza, but even more shocking is the fact that some hospitals host fast food chains on their premises. According to the 2015 Physicians Committee’s report uncovering complex contracts between fast food chains and hospitals:

Cheeseburgers and milkshakes are delivered to patients, restaurant leases are broken when profits from cancer-promoting chicken nuggets and processed meats don’t reach $1 million, and hospitals make money from the increased sales of fast food loaded with saturated fats and cholesterol.5

The report reveals that Chic-fil-A has at least 20 locations at hospitals, McDonald’s at least 18, and Wendy’s at least five, in addition to other national and local restaurants selling processed meat and dairy products.5 It is ludicrous that hospitals would promote the very foods that contribute to the deterioration of the health of millions of Americans, to the point where they will eventually require hospital care.5 This raises an ethical issue. According to a 2013 report published in the AMA Journal of Ethics, a doctor serving on a hospital board argued:

if a hospital cafeteria achieves profitability by selling items that promote poor eating habits and poor health, there is a conflict between that business practice and the hospital’s broader mission. Certainly, a hospital might generate valuable revenue by selling any number of products that are bad for one’s health (e.g., cigarettes). But selling such products would contradict the health-driven mission, and any revenue generated would not be a defensible offset. Offsets from selling foods that clearly damage human health would, likewise, be indefensible.6

Hospital Food and Vaccine Mandates

There is plenty of evidence highlighting the association between poor nutrition and susceptibility to infectious diseases and chronic illness. Good nutrition is the cornerstone for building a strong immune system capable of fighting disease naturally.

What is perplexing is that hospitals are promoting unhealthy foods to hospital employees, patients and visitors, while simultaneously so concerned about staff and patient influenza infections that they are mandating flu shots for employees and firing those who don’t comply, even though flu shots fail to work half the time. This is a gross contradiction of public health standards. It reflects a major conflict between hospital policies and ethical practices and raises questions about financial conflicts of interest with for-profit corporations that fail to serve the best interests of patients or hospital staff.

Hospitals should begin protecting their employees and patients from susceptibility to infections and chronic disease by focusing on the true and time-tested methods for disease prevention—starting with incorporating good nutrition as part of the patient treatment plan and providing healthy food options for staff and visitors to the hospital.


1 Moore L, Thompson F.  Adults Meeting Fruit and Vegetable Intake Recommendations–United States, 2013. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 2015; 64 (26): 709-713.
Hamblin J. Science Compared Every Diet and the Answer is Real Food. The Atlantic Mar. 24, 2014.
Physicians Committee Responsible for Medicine. 2016 Hospital Food Report: Highlighting Hazardous and Healthy Hospital Food Environments. 2016
Silverman MR, Gregoire MB, Lafferty LJ, Dowling RA. Current and Future Practices in Hospital Food Services. Journal of the American Dietetic Association 2000; 100 (1): 76-80.
Good Medicine. Hazardous Hospital Foods: How Fast Food Jeopardizes Public Health. Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine 2015; XXIV (1).
Lesser L, Lucan S. The Ethics of Hospital Cafeteria Food. AMA Journal of Ethics 2013; 15(4): 299-305.

15 Responses to "The Paradox of Hospital Food"

  1. Jill Herendeen   May 17, 2016 at 6:06 am

    It does seem paradoxical–until you realize that healthcare in America is about profit, on many, many levels, and healthy people are not profitable. Health may well be the foremost intent of most clinicians, but they’re not running the show. When we get single-payer healthcare and tax the rich to pay for it, while limiting how much profit they can make off of it, I believe that a lot of things will change.

    • Nicholas Oliveri   May 24, 2016 at 8:36 am

      We already have a government run single payer hospital system, it’s called the VA. Never been in a VA hospital but I would guess that the food is no different.

  2. Susan   May 17, 2016 at 6:54 am

    You are exactly right. I’ve been struck by this irony for decades. It’s insane. The author of Supersize Me pointed out the ridiculousness that there’s a friggin’ McD’s in a children’s cancer hospital… with the excuse “it’s very hard to get children to eat when they’re undergoing chemo, so sometimes the only thing they’ll eat is (this crap)” Which is just so wrong that they would be offered killing foods as they fight for life.
    You should start a petition on I’ll sign it.
    Will you sign mine? So many wrongs to right. So little time and the madness continues. My pet peeve is soda,whether it is made w/ evil HFCS or evil aspartame… please sign so that at least we can get our govt to stop poisoning the poor by funding purchases of soda for people who are oblivious as to how it is poisoning them and their children:

  3. KAH   May 17, 2016 at 7:16 am

    True. My husband just survived his last treatment. They gave him ensure, then isocal, then nutren, for peg tube feeding. These are fabricated by nestles, human beings who believe water should not be free. We eat organic in my home, have for the past four years. This garbage chemical “food” nearly put my husband in shock. He couldnt stop throwing up. The hospital came up empty handed when we asked for an organic akternative. But the soda and candy machines stood wall to wall in certain rooms. I found many great affordable organic weight gain meals online. I chose a real food, high protein with vitamins. Why nutren has copper and other metal, I am unknowing. I have no idea what the “vitamins” listed even are!

  4. Donna Marquart   May 17, 2016 at 8:03 am

    I think if more people complained to hospitals (or brought in their own stuff) and made an issue about the importance of whole foods and not the stuff that makes a profit for the “food company” and the hospital – then something will be done.

  5. Dr. Brandon   May 17, 2016 at 8:05 am

    One comment in this article is out-of-date. We now know that eating saturated fats is very healthly. A ketogenic diet kills cancer cells. Too much protein is also not healthy, as gluconeogenesis by our liver can convert proteins into sugars. Suggested reading: “Tripping Over the Truth” and “Keto Clarity”

  6. Guillaume   May 17, 2016 at 8:54 am

    When my son was in the hospital recovering from open heat surgery, the food that was available was just as disgusting and it was a Children’s hospital so you would think they can do better. But, because it was the heart department, it was sodium free… like if sea salt was a poison to a heart patient but not industrially raised and processed previously frozen fried chicken and saggy GMO French fries most likely cooked in cheap canola oil.

  7. Gary   May 17, 2016 at 9:10 am

    Dr. Brandon: Thank you very much for your comments. Ketone bodies are excellent fuel as well. Also, while a plant-based diet is indeed healthful, high-quality animal foods are essential, particularly for those recovering from illness or injury, as well as ascorbate therapy (little used today because it is not patentable, but with an extensive track record of success in infectious diseases, and some in cancer).

  8. Colorado   May 17, 2016 at 10:36 am

    Dr in NY got penalized for recommending food as medicine. CO herbal specialists are under constant attack for recommending non pharmaceutical herbs as having any healing properties. Meanwhile the big pharma medicine set is comprised almost entirely of synthetic recreations of herbal compounds found in nature. But remember, it’s not official and approved ‘medicine’ until the naturally occurring and highly effective compound is synthesized and patented. If I get sick, I’m getting a vitamin B shot, even if I have to somehow acquire and administer it myself. Pepto B long since stopped containing peppermint, and now contains liquid aluminum. Care to be a lifetime customer of indigestion medicines? Reach for the Pepto! Otherwise, trust in sound dietary choices and remember the very last place an informed consumer should turn to for sound health advice is the government. Hospitals are where people go to die, and they rarely exit there doing better than when they came in. An apple a day keeps the doctor away. / Strike that; An organic freshly picked apple without any pesticides, residues, or loss of nutritional vitamins from storage and shipping time, keeps the doctor away. You can see why it’s hard for regular uninformed consumers to get their minds around that one in the absence of effective product labeling. LABEL IT! In the meantime, don’t trust it and get your own garden going pronto! We just planted down 4 fruit producing trees and 8 food producing shrubs. Next comes some feature nut trees. The only way they drag me into the hospital is flat on my back helpless. Otherwise I find a way to avoid those places. I’ll break my own fingers back in place and reset my own joints if I get injured. Doctors are over rated. Only time I ever needed a doctor was massive tumor removal. And if the medical community would not have had it’s head in the dirt, I probably would never have had that tumor in the first place. Here is to the pepsi brands that I will never drink or serve again, as long as I live. Here is to an organic, gmo free, sugar fee, synthetic free, major corporation free diet! Being a foodie is rewarding, but it’s a long road of researching one product at a time. Every single day, research what you eat. Google it. It’s not rocket science. The support network to make informed food choices is out there. I keep calling for a stronger support network for persons and families whom do not vaccinate, but that so far as not yet materialized.

  9. Buffet   May 18, 2016 at 3:30 am

    Ever notice how many doctors and especially nurses are fat whales?

  10. Karilee   May 20, 2016 at 9:49 am

    I call hospital food “Please, come again when you can stay longer” food.

  11. Jo   May 21, 2016 at 8:11 pm

    IF you’re in a hospital, the food may be the least dangerous thing about your stay! If the mistakes the staff make, the misdiagnoses, the infectious diseases (sepsis, MRSA, etc.) don’t kill you, the food probably won’t either.

    It’s cheap slop. If you are able, have a relative or friend sneak you in a home cooked, organic meal each night. And don’t forget the sea salt. The whole ‘don’t eat salt’ and ‘scary cholesterol’ thing was complete & utter propaganda to get everyone on blood pressure drugs and statins –which killed many people for a variety of reasons. The elderly are notorious for experiencing dizziness and falling down while on those drugs.

  12. eli   June 3, 2016 at 10:49 am

    Hospitals & schools servr junk food, however,Saturated fat, cholsterol & sea salt, are healthy food.

  13. Devon   November 13, 2017 at 8:08 am

    My daughter has life-threatening food allergies… when she was in the hospital for RSV as a toddler, we had to bring in safe food. The hospital couldn’t offer safe foods, let alone anything organic! They actually could have killed her with what we were offered for her meals (and, yes, they were aware of her allergies).


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