It’s almost that time of year: holiday heart attack season. More people die from heart disease between December 25 and January 7 than at any other time of the year. What’s the answer? Healthier food. As a cardiologist, I’m calling on hospitals to lead by example. Historically, some hospitals have been known for serving their heart attack patients breakfasts of bacon and eggs, conveying a message to patients and families that food does not matter.
That is all about to change. Earlier this year, the American College of Cardiology released Heart-Healthy Food Recommendations for Hospitals, which says that “hospitalization can be a ‘teachable moment’ for patients who are ready to embrace nutrition as part of the healing process.” The ACC recommends having plant-based main dishes available at every meal. It also says that processed meats—bacon, sausage, ham, hot dogs, and deli meats—should be off the menu entirely. The American Medical Association followed suit, calling for similar improvements in hospital food offerings: out with the bacon and sausage, in with the vegan choices.
The plan could save hundreds of thousands of lives a year. A study published this year in the Journal of the American Medical Association linked not eating enough fruits, vegetables and grains to more than 150,000 cardiovascular deaths a year and too much processed meat to 60,000 deaths.
Are you serious? you might be asking. Will hospitals really serve vegan (plant-based) meals, and will patients really eat them (and like them)? The answer is absolutely yes. A generation ago, hospitals banned cigarettes, and the grumbling from smokers ended almost immediately. It was a clear-cut message about what is healthy and what is not. It’s time to do the same with unhealthy foods.
The ACC and AMA recommendations also have benefits beyond heart health. A recent report from the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research found that eating three servings of whole grains per day reduces colorectal cancer risk by 17 percent, while eating just 50 grams of processed meat per day—about the size of a hot dog or a couple of slices of bacon—increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent.
Other organizations, like the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, are working in hospitals to make healthful hospital food a reality. This year, the Physicians Committee successfully encouraged the University of Mississippi Medical Center and Arkansas Children’s Hospital to remove hot dogs from patient menus, and convinced others to kick out fast food restaurants. The doctors’ group also produced a Heart-Healthy Foods for Hospitals booklet, which includes delicious plant-based recipes: Apple Sweet Potato Breakfast Bake, Cheezy Potato and Veggie Breakfast Casserole, and Mexican Lasagna. It also makes hospital managers’ lives easier by providing list of contractors that provide heart-healthy foods, tips from professionals for how to successfully implement the plan, handouts for patients and cafeteria signage.
In other words, the change could not be easier. Let’s resolve to eat healthfully, and let’s start with our hospitals. While some hospitals are starting to do this, let’s see if we can get them all to take this on in a whole-hearted approach. Instead of being the riskiest time of year, let’s work together to make the holiday season the healthiest.
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