Food for Healing:
Proven approaches to care through food
Authored By: Cindy Jecusco, Planetree International
We have all heard the phrase “chicken soup is good for the soul,” but this phrase is backed by science. Studies show that proper nutrition helps the body fight infection and heal from surgery, wounds, colds, the flu, COVID-19, and various other illnesses and injuries. According to the CDC, a healthy diet and regular physical activity can help prevent weight gain, heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and some kinds of cancer. However, only about 1 in 10 US adults eats enough fruits or vegetables.
The foods and beverages that people consume have a profound impact on their health. The scientific connection between food and health has been well documented for many decades, with substantial and increasingly robust evidence showing that a healthy lifestyle—including following a healthy dietary pattern— can help people achieve and maintain good health and reduce the risk of chronic diseases throughout all stages of the lifespan: infancy and toddlerhood, childhood and adolescence, adulthood, pregnancy and lactation, and older adulthood. The core elements of a healthy dietary pattern are remarkably consistent across the lifespan and across health outcomes.
This begs the question – should healthcare facilities that are tasked with healing patients also be responsible for providing healthy and nutritious meal offerings?
Food & Wellness: The Proven Connection
The Planetree model of person-centered care was founded on the belief that to achieve optimal health outcomes, healthcare should be delivered in a way that meets both medical needs and human needs. Food does both, which is why the nurturing and nutritional aspects of food have long been an important element of a person-centered care experience. Food provides patients with energy and nourishment, but can also provide comfort, pleasure, a sense of routine and socialization. Food can also present opportunities for healthcare facilities to provide patient education about the implications of diet on chronic disease management and overall health.
Data demonstrates the link between patients’ food experiences and their overall satisfaction with their care. This connection combined with the growing interest in person-centered care has garnered considerable attention from healthcare institutions, many of whom have developed practical, person-centered approaches to providing food to their patients across the care continuum. Health care organizations nationwide are offering healthier menus, working with farmers to purchase locally and sustainably grown products, reducing the amount of meat they purchase and serve, and going beyond their walls to help meet the food needs of their community, all in an effort to achieve major goals for both the facility and the surrounding community.
A growing number of hospitals believe that food is an essential ingredient to patient and community health and wellbeing, and have moved away from standard hospital fare, replacing it with designed meal plans that focus on healthier food options. Check out these person-centered organizations healing patients with best-in-class dining experiences:
Wellness: The Plant-Based Model at NYC Health + Hospitals
Hospital meals have long centered on meat, dairy, and highly processed foods—standard American diet fare that has been linked to obesity and a range of chronic diseases, from Type 2 diabetes to heart disease. New York City is working to change that. Earlier this year, the city’s public hospitals began serving plant-based meals as the default for inpatient lunches; now, they’re rolling out the same approach for dinner. Administrators from NYC Health + Hospitals, the largest municipal health care system in the nation, say that the shift is motivated by a growing recognition of the importance of nutrition in preventing and reversing disease. “Nutritious, healthy food should be available wherever New Yorkers are, but especially in institutions that are meant to restore health,” says Ashwin Vasan, ScM, MD, PhD, commissioner of the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. While patients can opt for non-plant-based meals, NYC H+H reports that since rolling out the lunches this year, a majority of patients have stuck with the plant-based default and have been satisfied with the meals. The new dinner policy is already in place at three sites—Lincoln, Metropolitan, and Woodhull—with plans to bring it to its other eight sites in the coming months.
Making Dining Personal at Northern Westchester Hospital
Northern Westchester Hospital, located in Mt. Kisco, New York, believes that healthy, delicious, and nutritious food should be part of a patients’ care, and as a result have made meals a part of their personalized treatment plans through a program called Food is Care. The goal is to offer in-room restaurant quality, nutritious food made from the best ingredients, including local and organic incredients when possible. Northern Westchester Hospital is doing its best to change the way people see hospital food. All patients’ meals are cooked to order using seasonal products and fresh herbs. Specials such as halibut with spring vegetables and herb sauce are offered nightly. There are four menus per year to coincide with the seasons and patients can order off the menu at any time. Staff can enjoy nutritious meals with a daily discounted “healthy plate” meal of yogurt bars with nuts, seed and fruit toppings or flavorful salad bars. They also offer a Wellness Garden onsite where caregivers grow organic produce which they give to new mothers and patients who are food insecure.
Griffin Hospital: Promoting Healthy Eating in the Community
In its ongoing commitment to improving the health and well-being of its community, Griffin Health, in Derby, CT, has been at the forefront of providing nutritious food and education on how to prepare healthy meals to help prevent chronic disease in the Lower Naugatuck Valley region. In 2018, Griffin opened the Griffin Hospital Community Garden, a 2,000 square foot garden located on the hospital’s campus that provides free, fresh produce to area residents who need access to healthy food. The garden has 12 raised beds that are open to residents to pick a variety of vegetables and herbs, including broccoli, peppers, tomatoes, lettuce, chard, collards, onions, eggplant, thyme, basil, and parsley.
From this initiative, Griffin became aware of the lack of fresh, healthy produce and an abundance of non-nutritious food at the area food banks. Griffin’s dieticians met with food banks managers to develop donation guidelines that ensure the food banks are stocked with food that would promote good health. Additionally, Griffin partnered with community groups and businesses to organize healthy food deliveries including fresh, refrigerated and frozen fruits and vegetables, peanut butter, eggs, soy milk, beans, fish and turkey, for the food banks to further help individuals productively overcome food insecurity as a social determinant of good health.
Fakeeh University Hospital: A Healthy, Diverse and Culturally Rich Menu
Fakeeh University Hospital located in Dubai, UAE, is proud to offer a diverse range of dining options for patients and their families 24 hours a day. Designed based on the requests and needs of their patients through their patient-centered committee, their dining program focuses on fresh, wholesome, and delicious meals that are made using high-quality ingredients. It celebrates cultural diversity through cultural food days, allowing Fakeeh University Hospital to highlight the diverse backgrounds of their patients and offer them a taste of home during their hospital stay. And these customized healthy food options have paid off. Fakeeh University Hospital regularly receives positive feedback from their patients who appreciate the variety and quality of their menu.
10 Ways to Deliver Healthy Food Options at your Organization
We have highlighted organizations leading the way to healthier communities and patients through food. And this trend is gaining momentum. A recent journal article , noted that there are a growing number of successful nutrition and lifestyle initiatives at health facilities and hospitals across the United States, and it is clear that the movement toward healthier dining isn’t stopping there. So where should you start on your journey to person-centered dining? What are some potential ways your healthcare facility can provide more healthy and nutritious food offerings to patients and encourage staff and the community to make better choices? Here are 10 possible approaches:
1. Partner with community farms and gardens and inquire about possible discounts.
2. Reduce the amount of meat that is served and offer more plant-based options.
3. Build an on-site food garden or greenhouse and use herbs to flavor foods.
4. Replace vending machine snacks with healthier snack choices.
5. Incentivize the purchase of healthier menu choices by staff.
6. Offer fewer fried foods, sweetened beverages, processed foods and packaged snacks.
7. Label foods with nutritional information and caloric count.
8. Create a healthy foods task force made up of people who share the same passion.
9. Outsource food and support services so that the focus is on treating and caring for patients.
10. Replace fast food chains that are located within healthcare settings with healthier options such as Sweetgreen or Protein Bar and Kitchen.