As an emergency doctor, I’m all too familiar with the stereotype of hospital food - a tray of flaked potatoes, graying meatloaf, and processed cheese with a side of Jell-O. It's a far cry from the colourful, diverse plate that is the face of the new Canada’s Food Guide. Hospitals can, and are beginning to lead by example in recognizing food as a major ingredient in health both within and beyond their walls.
Common sense, and a wealth of evidence, supports nutritious food as a fundamental part of health and healing. In fact, a recent study found an improved diet could potentially “prevent one in every five deaths globally.” Too much salt, not enough fruits, and too few whole grains are contributing factors in more than half of diet-related deaths.
The revised Canada’s Food Guide takes a big step towards helping us feel better and live longer by showing us how to eat more fresh produce, choose fewer processed foods, and explore easy ways to include more plant-based proteins.
Sadly, this nutrient-rich diet is out of reach for too many Canadians who are facing time or money constraints. According to Statistics Canada, the cost of vegetables rose by more than 14 per cent in the past year.
Food insecurity - the lack of reliable access to enough nutritious food - is very real in our country. It’s both an urban and rural problem and has particularly negative health and social effects on people living with poverty, including the more than one in six children in food-insecure households.
Examples are commonplace in my ER. An elderly man can’t stand because he’s been too isolated to get groceries. A woman (and it is more often women) hasn’t eaten lunch or dinner as she races between jobs and childcare. We see it so frequently, we’re desensitized to it.
Choosing good #food is essential to our wellbeing, writes @DrEdwardX #foodforhealth2019 cc @Nourishlead #healthcare #cdnhealth #health #sustainability #publichealth
But you don’t have to be poor to have a poor diet. Heart disease and type 2 diabetes are familiar results of malnutrition, in old and young, from farmsteads to boardrooms.
‘No pills or surgery will fix a poor diet’
Malnutrition leads to poor wound healing, higher risk of infection, and slower recovery from illness. That means longer hospital stays, higher treatment costs, and a greater risk of dying. Where I work, we can transplant hearts, but no pills or surgery will fix a poor diet.
Solutions to this widespread problem can start within healthcare. Providing tasty, nutritious, and culturally-appropriate meals in hospitals can reduce patient suffering and improve their quality of life. And after patients return home, we also need to support them with health-positive social policies that make Canada’s Food Guide attainable for everyone.
The Nourish initiative is helping set an example by engaging a national network of food service directors and innovators who are passionate about taking local action to bring nutritious, sustainable meals into health institutions.
Nourish innovators in Regina have introduced traditional foods such as Saskatoon berries, bison stew, and bannock on patient menus, to great excitement, after developing recipes in consultation with local Indigenous community members. Meeting patient needs with a broader selection and culturally-appropriate menus can encourage better nutrition and improve the healing experience, which is important to both patients and hospitals.
Elsewhere, Nourish leaders at Halton Healthcare have embraced ‘from scratch cooking,’ producing meals in-house with fresh, local ingredients, and a Montreal hospital is shifting towards serving more plant-based proteins that are better for patients’ health and more sustainable for our planet.
As Canadians, health is a top priority, in order to enjoy the beautiful land we live in and to ensure our children have a vibrant future. By embracing Canada’s Food Guide and supporting it with innovative action and policies, we can promote equitable access to nutritious, sustainable diets. When we recognize that choosing good food is essential to our wellbeing, in a multitude of ways, we can start to build a healthier Canada.
Dr. Edward Xie is a family and emergency physician, who attended the Food for Health Symposium May 15 -16 in Toronto, bringing together health and food stakeholders to explore food in health care innovation across the country.