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Doctors call for healthier hospital food



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WASHINGTON, Sep 20, 2005 (United Press International via COMTEX) -- A physicians' organization is calling on U.S. hospitals to offer healthier dining options for patients, visitors and employees, because many do not provide enough low-fat, cholesterol-free foods.

A survey conducted by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine found less than one-third of hospitals offer either a salad bar or a daily low-fat, cholesterol-free entree, and high-fat foods, such as fried chicken, pizza and enchiladas, remain among the top-selling entrees.

"The amazing thing to me is that there isn't really a healthy option every day at all hospitals," Dr. Amy Lanou, senior nutrition scientist with PCRM, told United Press International. "I understand food service operators saying, 'I can't get rid of chicken nuggets or burgers,' but what they can all do is provide at least one healthy hot entree every day, and they're not doing that, which is really striking to me."

Last December and January PCRM collected data from 40 hospitals in the Spirit of Women hospital network, which operates facilities in 22 states. Twenty-five hospitals representing 9,000 beds participated.

"The majority of hospitals are trying to offer some health-promoting food choices to customers though substantial opportunities for improvement remain," the survey concluded.

One of the most shocking findings, Lanou said, was when hospitals were asked to send information about their "healthiest item," the item sometimes contained more than 50 percent of its calories as fat.

"That's your healthiest item?" Lanou asked. "I think that means maybe there's a need for some education around for hospitals -- that's something I'm hoping we can do."

The PCRM survey also criticized hospitals that house fast-food establishments, which 17 percent of respondents admitted doing.

"I don't think we were surprised as much as disappointed that our assumptions were correct," Tanya Abreu, president of Spirit of Women Hospitals, told UPI.

Part of the reason hospital cafeterias may not serve the healthiest food, Abreu said, is that even though almost every hospital has nutritionists, it is difficult for them to influence food-purchasing decisions.

"What we're really trying to do is make this easier for the hospitals," Abreu said. "It's hard for hospitals to change food service contracts. It's hard for hospitals to change what they have easy access to do."

Lanou said the ideal type of food that should be served in hospitals is low in fat, high in fiber and preferably cholesterol-free with no trans fat. She said menus should feature fruits, vegetables and legumes, and entrees should not exceed 30 grams of fat.

Abreu said hospitals should try to include more beans, multi-grains and soy milk -- all inexpensive and readily available options -- in their cafeterias. She also called on hospitals to take relatively simple steps to promote health, such as changing the contents of vending machines and providing nutritional information at cafeterias.

Lanou said hospitals should be setting a better example in the food they serve in their cafeterias.

"It makes sense to think about what foods are being offered in healthcare facilities," she said. "Often the staff, visitors and patients actually eat there, so I think (hospitals) were a good place to take a look at if food being served in healthcare centers is promoting health."

Lanou said despite the survey results, some hospitals are offering healthy, creative food, and they should be looked at as a model.

"These are not difficult (changes), but they are systematic changes," Abreu said. "We have to build a momentum with doctors who are willing to speak out, with nurses willing to demand, and ... food buyers who feel educated and empowered to make changes."

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Ryan Holeywell is an intern for UPI. E-mail: sciencemail@upi.com

Copyright 2005 by United Press International.

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