Having to spend any amount of time in the hospital is far from enjoyable. The smell, the cold air, and the sterility of it all will make anyone afraid of the doctor. But perhaps the worst part about having to hang out in the hospital (you know, besides being sick or injured) is having to eat the food. Hospital food has quite the reputation for being far from appetizing, and after learning these secrets about the Jell-O and mush on your plate, you’ll be even more turned off by whatever is on that tray.
For the most part, standard hospital fare in the U.S. and U.K. consists of meat, potatoes, some sort of vegetable, sandwiches, soup, crackers, chips, and juice — seemingly all served in some sort of mystery gravy (chips and juice included). However, each hospital has a different cafeteria and meal system in place. Therefore, your local hospital may serve tastier food than what others are used to. If that’s the case, be grateful you’re not subjected to mush on mush, with gravy, of course.
But these below secrets pertain to the majority of hospitals in the U.S. and U.K., as discovered by several studies.
Remember to have an open dialogue about your meals with your doctors and nurses while in the hospital.
Editor’s note: While these facts are true for some hospitals, they’re not true for all. Every hospital is funded and run very differently!
1. Staff admit they wouldn’t eat what they serve.
A Guardian report stated that two-thirds of hospital staff members in the U.K. said they would not eat the food they serve their patients on the daily… which is not great news. These meals range from tuna sandwiches to “ready-made meals” that are basically a tray of gray mush. Great.
2. There’s actually an initiative to keep hospital food gross.
The Guardian reports that U.K. hospitals may actually prefer to serve disgusting food because that means less people will order it during their stay. The more meals a hospital serves, the more money they have to shell out to do so.
“And if the patients won’t order from the menu, and their relatives buy junk from the hospital shop for them instead, the hospital gains twice: once from saving on that hospital meal, once from its share of the profits from the shop,” the Guardian states.
3. Hospitals say healthy foods are too expensive.
As Dr. Axe reports, many U.S. and U.K. hospitals blame their unhealthy menus on the fact that buying nutritious food is too expensive. But then again, so are the hospital bills patients are left with.
However, based on how much food waste is currently being produced by hospitals, offering a smaller variety that’s healthy would only help these establishments and their patients.
4. Doctors may have a lack of nutritional training.
When asked why hospital foods are so unhealthy, many staff members, including doctors and nurses, state they lack professional training in nutrition, and therefore can’t speak much on what foods are good and bad.
This is according to Joel Kahn, MD, who wrote a piece on hospital food for HuffPost in 2015.
Kahn says this “excuse” is “simply not tenable in an era where the information highways provides us unlimited resources.”
5. It’s actually okay to eat before surgery.*
“Many hospitals say no drinking or eating after midnight the day before your surgery because it’s more convenient for them. But that means patients may show up uncomfortable, dehydrated, and starving, especially for afternoon surgery,” Cynthia Wong, MD, an anesthesiologist at University of Iowa Healthcare, told Reader’s Digest.
“The latest American Society of Anesthesiologists guidelines are more nuanced: no fried or fatty foods for eight hours before your surgery and no food at all for six hours. Clear liquids, including water, fruit juices without pulp, soda, Gatorade, and black coffee, may be consumed up to two hours beforehand.”
*This totally depends on the individual and the surgery!
6. It’s not uncommon for patients to suffer from nutrient deficiencies.
A 2017 piece by Dr. Axe reports that studies pertaining to hospital food are rare, and many “recent” studies on the topic date back to the ’80s and ’90s.
However, these newer reports state that it’s not uncommon for hospital patients to suffer from nutrient deficiencies — including protein and iron deficiencies — and even malnutrition during a hospital stay.
7. Food waste in hospitals is prolific.
The Guardian reported in 2015 that over 80,000 hospital meals served in the United Kingdom are left uneaten per day. That’s a lot of waste that should be composted, reduced, and recycled.
This is usually because the food is so disgusting that patients choose not to eat it. And honestly, we don’t blame them.
8. Many hospitals serve fast food.
According to a 2015 report from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, over 20 hospitals in America have an in-house Chick-fil-A. Another five U.S. hospitals have a Wendy’s in the lobby.
It seems more than ironic that hospitals are serving fast food when fast food is the root of many major health problems in America like obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes.
9. Processed foods reign supreme.
For anyone who has stayed in the hospital long enough to have a meal served to them, they’ll know that processed foods are no stranger to that meal tray.
From preservative-filled fruit cups to chips and pre-packaged cookies and juice, artificial sweeteners and saturated fats are packed into every hospital meal.
10. The food could actually make you sicker.
“Don’t assume the food is what you should be eating,” Evan Levine, MD, told Reader’s Digest.
“There’s no communication between dietary and pharmacy, and that can be a problem when you’re on certain meds. I’ve had patients on drugs for hypertension or heart failure (which raises potassium levels), and the hospital is delivering (potassium-rich) bananas and orange juice. Then their potassium goes sky high, and I have to stop the meds. Ask your doctor whether there are foods you should avoid.”
11. It’s up to you to eat right.
Unfortunately, because hospital meals are notoriously unhealthy, it’s up to the patient to choose more nutritious items. Instead of picking the lasagna, opt for the menu choice that is more vegetable-heavy.
You can even request the kitchen only send you meals that are vegetable-based like veggie burgers, rice and beans, or include hefty portions of roasted vegetables.
12. Some hospitals will preach but not practice.
According to the American Medical Association Journal of Ethics via Dr. Axe, some hospitals will uphold their “fiscal responsibility” to promote better health by educating their patients on eating right and choosing better ingredients and foods. However, even though some hospitals offer these programs, they continue to serve processed, high-caloric, and sugar-filled foods.
As stated by the AMA, hospitals can educate on “the nutritional content of foods such as the amount of fat, cholesterol, and sodium in the cafeteria offering, and then leave it up to the visitors and staff to make their own choices.”
13. Only about one-third of U.S. hospitals are committed to healthy meal plans.
Out of the over 6,000 hospitals in the U.S., only a fraction have taken the Health Food in Health Care Pledge. This pledge is “a framework that outlines steps to be taken by the health care industry to improve the health of patients, communities, and the environment,” as the organization’s site states.
Furthermore, the organization works with hospitals to “source and serve foods that are produced, processed, and transported in ways that are protective of public and environmental health.”
14. Hospital cafeterias are feeding climate change.
As noted by Health Care Without Harm, industrial food production is heavily reliant on synthetic pesticides, fossil-fuel based fertilizers, water, and energy — all of which are factors directly linked to climate change and global warming.
The more hospitals choose to forgo sustainable food selections like locally-sourced foods and meat loaded with antibiotics, the more they are lending a hand to the climate crisis.
15. Food is rarely cooked on site.
According to The Guardian, many hospitals have ended up entering into a relationship with catering companies in an attempt to diversify their menus and provide patients with better menu options.
However, in doing so, hospitals are now sent frozen meals made with the cheapest of ingredients from these catering companies.
All staff has to do is heat them up, add a few condiments, and hope the patient eats it (which, we now know doesn’t happen often).
16. The richer you are, the better food you get.
It’s no surprise that even during a hospital stay, money talks. Since 2012, some U.S. hospitals are upgrading entire wings to accommodate their wealthier clientele, thus creating a five-star hospital experience for those who can afford it.
Dishes like mushroom risotto and racks of lamb are served to these patients while they’re staying in rooms that look more like hotel suites than hospital rooms.
We’re assuming when a Kardashian-Jenner gives birth, they’re not eating mushy green stuff and Jell-O.
Be wary about what you’re eating the next time you or a loved one is in the hospital. Being aware of what’s on your plate may just help shorten your stay. At the same time, do know that many hospitals vary and their resources depend a lot on funding. Just don’t be surprised if you’re not served steak and lobster.