Observations at a Hospital

Yesterday I got to visit the hospital at my university and go behind the scenes of their food preparation service, and see what goes into the food at a highly ranked, state university affiliated hospital. Let’s just say once delivery got underway, I was thoroughly horrified.

I do need to preface my observations with the fact that this hospital and its staff are GREAT people, very dedicated to their jobs and to providing the absolute best service to their patients that they can, while staying in budget and following dietary guidelines that regulate what they can serve their patients. The food is actually very delicious, well presented, and customizable to the patient’s wants and needs. I wanted to put that out there in case anyone is reading this as a critique of UNC Hospitals specifically, because I think they do a wonderful job under the constraints they’re in, and I thoroughly enjoyed getting to talk with the managers behind the scenes and learn what kind of pressures they deal with on a regular basis. Yayyy UNC! 🙂

I would like to offer this as a critique of the dietary guidelines that govern what our hospitals are allowed to serve sick patients. I offer up an example of a “USDA-approved” liquid diet substitute, which is provided to patients who cannot tolerate a solid diet:


Skim Milk! Corn Syrup! Corn Oil! HFCS! Soy protein isolate! It’s magically delicious!

On a more serious note… is this SERIOUSLY what we are feeding patients while spending thousands of dollars (per person) trying to heal them? How can anyone possibly think that this type of “food” (is that even the correct term?) is going to promote healing and recovery, when the majority of the ingredients are inflammatory, immune provoking, insulin spiking, and liver damaging??

I certainly don’t blame the hospitals for serving this to their patients, because this is standard protocol for patients who cannot eat solid foods and need to maintain a certain calorie intake. But really, “Hormel HEALTH Labs”, can’t we do better than this??

It doesn’t end there, though. As I was helping put together trays for delivery to the bedridden patients, I couldn’t help but notice the wide variety of sodas that were available. There was regular cola, diet cola, diet and caffeine free cola, regular caffeine free cola, you name it. Not to mention juices, sweetened iced tea flavored beverages, canned lemonade… all bursting with sugar, corn syrup, preservatives, artificial flavors, the list goes on. And I realized I was putting together trays for RENAL patients. As part of their “heart healthy” meal (as defined by good ol’ USDA), which was low in fat and sodium, these patients were allowed to have a carte blanche on the amount of soda they wanted to drink at any point during the day. Unless they had liquid limitations, or if they were diabetic (in which case they were limited to diet soda for the most part), there was absolutely no limit on the amount of sugar-sweetened beverages these sick patients were allowed to have. The fact that they were renal patients just made me even that more upset, since their kidneys are clearly not capable of detoxifying the chemicals that would flood into their system as they drank these sodas.

Along with the soda, the patients were allowed to order chocolate cake, brownies, ice cream, cheesecake, canned fruit, jello…. And on the heart healthy menu, if you were in the hospital for a heart related condition, you weren’t allowed to order scrambled eggs (because just think of all the dangerous cholesterol that would surge through your already damaged veins, causing incomprehensible damage…), but you were allowed to order PANCAKES. Because somehow pancakes are considered a “heart healthy” food. Someone please explain this to me? Because I’m confused.

Again, let me just reiterate that this is NOT a critique about this specific hospital, because after talking to the director of the patients’ food service system, he explained to me that their menu is regulated by the USDA Dietary Guidelines, and their heart healthy ratings are solely based on those recommendations provided to them by the government. It’s not like the hospital has the capability of developing its own nutrition standards for the food they serve, beyond taste and presentation (which was actually very impressive!)

I know this sounds like the rant of a crazy person, but I just needed to get this off my chest, because I was literally shaking as we walked around between the rooms handing out trays to these patients. I saw patients with legs so swollen they were turning purple. Patients with teeth missing. Patients with dementia that had to be told what food they were receiving. I even saw a male attendant that was wearing an eye patch. I soon learned that he had lost vision in that eye due to his diabetes, and he was struggling to see out of the other eye. This coming from a man who was not overweight by any means (but was missing about half his teeth). I was sick to my stomach with empathy and sadness for these patients for whom the American food system is completely and utterly failing.

On the bright side (there’s always a bright side), this was just another experience to contribute to my passion for impacting the way people in this country live their lives. There’s no reason that a young man should be going blind from diabetes. There’s absolutely no reason that our government should be allowed to pass off industrial agriculture byproducts to the sick and poor occupants of our state hospitals. This is beyond just “living an Ancestral lifestyle”. This is about human rights, and the right of all people to live healthy lives relatively free of debilitating, horrific diseases. Once we can separate our agricultural interests with our health care interests, I think we might actually be able to focus on healing the sick instead of prolonging their eventual decline into an early grave.

Let’s get the USDA out of our hospitals, for a start. Then maybe we can worry about our schools, our military, our prison system, our nursing homes, our welfare programs…. all that other fun stuff.

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  1. Hi Laura, found your page on facebook which led me to your blog. It is sickening and very SAD you have to even think about giving this to someone let alone have it a substitute for real food. I found the Primal/paleo lifestyle 6.5 months ago, and since then I have cured my T2 diabetes, and will never go back to SAD!!

    You can find me by clicking on my primaltim name and that’ll take you to my blog bigtimsprimaljourney.com 🙂 I also have a facebook page of the same name links on my blog, and if you’re looking for the greatest group of Paleo peeps on facebook, find us in the IPMG (International Paleo Movement Group) Real world experienced peeps who support and post anything and everything related to living this lifestyle!!

    Look forward to following your progress!


  2. I know kids who are severely food-resistant (very limited diets by the child’s choice) but the doctor has recommended they drink Nutrition replacement drinks like Boost and Ensure – where the second and third listed ingredients are Sugar and Corn Syrup!

    The general public’s view of “Healthy” is severely influenced by the food companies.

    1. couldn’t agree more. so much of society is brain-washed by the government’s version of “healthy” food.

      nice post laura. it seems like common sense that the hospital’s “heart- healthy” foods were clearly not… yet somehow people still don’t understand it!

  3. Its all tied into gov’t subsidies. The govt subsidizes crap gmo crops like soy and corn, and then all those crops have to be used somewhere so they add it to absolutely everything and then those are the cheapest products for hospitals and schools to buy. My daughter had surgery at one of the top childrens hospitals in the country and the food was atrocious. Healing clearly begins with food. Here is hoping a new generation of professionals can change things.

  4. Wow, loved this post. I’m a pediatrician at a children’s hospital and see this sort of thing everyday, even in the realm of kids’ nutrition. Most nutritional supplements and shakes are nothing more than corn syrup or maltodextrin mixed with broken-down milk proteins. I’ve done the Paleo diet for a good 2-3 years and the stricter I am with it, the better I feel. I suggest it in some form to a lot of my patients who have autoimmune diseases, severe asthma, or bad food allergies, but it’s a hard sell. Thanks for helping to get the word out with your impassioned essay!

  5. Even though they do throw in some vitamin compounds, it is sad that of the first 7 ingredients, 5 of them are sweeteners and/or corn derivatives. I have always tried to steer clear of hospitals anyway. If you aren’t sick when you get there, you probably will be when you leave.

  6. Is that a “mighty shake”? As a nurse I am appalled at the crap we give patients- ever read whats in tube feedings? or the protein drinks? gag-o-rific! And diabetics don’t forget to count the 40-60carbs we want you to have per meal- hey why is your sugar so high? Maybe someday, the dieticians will come around and school the docs on proper nutrition to heal and get well.

  7. Laura, how would you supply a liquid diet? You point out what is wrong with the system but don’t offer any solutions. How would you supply a liquid diet dense in calories, protein and vitamins? Thanks for your insight.

    1. Well, from what I gathered from my visit at the hospital, what they used to do in the past for liquid diets was to literally blend actual food together into a smoothie form. This includes meats, vegetables, etcetera. If you needed to add calories to this person’s diet, there are many different types of fats that can be eaten, such as butter or egg yolks. Bone broths are extremely healing and are perfect for someone who can only consume liquids. Unfortunately, this is more expensive, and less palatable for patients than a chocolate shake. But at a minimum, the ingredients could be whole foods. I would rather see a milkshake given made from whole milk, egg yolks, and some type of fruit like a banana or strawberries, if the milkshake is the only thing the patient would eat.

      What I absolutely do know is that skim milk, sugar, high fructose corn syrup, corn oil, soy protein isolate, and a boatload of other additives is not something ANYONE should eat, let alone someone who is sick.

      Thanks for your question Karin!

      1. thanks so much for this article, I completely agree! and your liquid diet answer is spot on. bone broth should be the first line defense, not jello and pudding. we feed sick people reward type food as a comfort but we are doing them a great disservice. I finally convinced a close friend whose daughter has a g tube to feed her real food puree, and she is thriving and eating more by mouth now. whole foods can heal you, fake foods do nothing but perpetuate disease.

  8. My daughter was diagnosed with AML Leukemia at the end of May 2011 and she and I spent the better part of 6 months living at UW Madison Children’s Hospital… I was initially shocked by the hospital menu she could choose from and it was tough, tough, tough to try to get any of the the residents, nurses or doctors to support me when I insisted on no potatoes, pasta – yes to protein and veggies… I finally had to give in a LOT – because getting her to eat something was better than nothing, but I truly feel they (medical community) are missing out on a huge component to getting these kids better. The hospital dieticians are WAY wrong – you just have to sit there and nod your head. The Ronald McDonald House delivers free lunches to the parents every day – white bread bologna sandwiches, chips and granola bars usually (I know it’s free and it’s very much appreciated!) but it’s just not right. It’s taken a month for all of us to get back on track with our primal eating!

  9. Laura,

    My husband was treated for tongue/tonsil cancer this summer. Radiation left him unable to swallow, and I fed him a blenderized diet through his g-tube for several months. He’s now regaining the ability to eat orally, but I have been utterly horrifed about what doctors, dieticians, and hospitals wanted me to feed him…all the SUGAR. I actually had to fight to feed him BD when he spent a week in the hospital. The dietician was very nice but completely not aware of the movement. Check out my post http://marybethbutler.typepad.com/terrapin_station/2012/01/so-you-want-to-feed-a-blenderized-diet.html for more information and links. Good luck to you!

  10. Laura,

    Thanks for your reply. I would guess some of the issue with feeding pureed foods has to do with being palatable, which of course is not an issue with a feeding tube. I am sure it is a real challenge to develop complete nutrition AND make it taste good. When I worked in the hospital, years and years ago, we used lots of Enurse and Osmolyte and seems like there was another. Of the currently available liquid nutrition is there one you could reccomend to the facility, that you think is better then the one they are currently using?