Nutrition directly influences clinical outcomes of patients. Yet, many hospitals have historically provided unhealthful food options—a decision that impacts millions of people living with food allergies, chronic diseases and GI intolerance. Patients who require tube feeding have even fewer allergen-free choices as the enteral formulas predominantly available to them contain synthetic ingredients, which can cause impaired digestion and intolerance and lead to longer stays in the ICU.
Research demonstrating plant-based nutrition is an effective tool in preventing, treating and managing some of the most prevalent chronic diseases in the United States is growing. Studies show adherence to plant-based diets can decrease the risk of obesity, heart diseases, diabetes, and high blood pressure, along with cognitive decline and dementia. Additionally, research demonstrates oncology and pediatric patients using plant-based enteral formulas experienced improved tolerance and weight maintenance, allowing them to more effectively manage their diseases and boost their overall quality of life. In fact, increasing adherence to plant-based diets could prevent up to 80 percent of chronic conditions and save the U.S. healthcare system billions of dollars.
Thankfully, as health care providers and patients learn about the benefits of plant-based nutrition, more hospitals and health systems are embracing the “food as medicine” philosophy by offering meal and enteral formula options centered on fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains. And while some states, including California and New York, mandate hospitals to provide plant-based meal options, health care facilities across the country are well-positioned to promote the value of plant-based nutrition to patients, visitors, and staff.
Here are tips for adding plant-based options to hospital and health system menus and enteral nutrition formularies, as well as a few current initiatives designed to promote a healthy lifestyle beyond hospital walls and into the community.
Cafeteria and Patient Menus
The American Medical Association (AMA) calls on hospitals to eliminate processed meat from their menus, as studies show consumption of processed meat is linked to colorectal, stomach, pancreatic, prostate, and breast cancers, along with cardiovascular diseases and type 2 diabetes. Instead, AMA recommends including plant-based menu options for hospital patients, visitors, and staff.
Hospitals and health systems should start by reviewing their menus and identifying gaps where fresh, plant-based ingredients can be incorporated to offer a nutritionally complete meal. Engage key administrators and staff throughout the process while communicating the benefits of adding plant-based foods to the menu. Utilize resources from organizations like the Coalition for Plant-Based Foods in Hospitals to develop plant-based nutrition education, culinary training, recipes, and marketing strategies for rolling out these new plant-based menu options.
Enteral Nutrition Formularies
While updating foodservice offerings at the bedside and in the hospital cafeteria are essential for promoting a healthy lifestyle, ensuring patients have access to medical foods made with the highest-quality plant-based ingredients is critical for improving their health outcomes. These foods are technically designed to help patients manage their disease, and yet, the formulas are often not well regulated for efficacy. For example, there are no rules against additives and no minimum requirements for essential vitamins and minerals. Some contain nutritionally poor-quality ingredients, like corn syrup, while others have protein sources, such as dairy, that may trigger allergies or an immune response.
An important first step in evaluating enteral nutrition formularies is to assess patient population and estimated nutrient needs. Similar to incorporating plant-based menu options, this initial assessment allows hospitals and health systems to identify gaps where enteral formulas designed for specific nutrient requirements and diseases can be added to support their unique patient population.
When it comes to incorporating healthy plant-based nutrition, hospitals and health systems must hold their enteral nutrition formularies to the same standard as their cafeteria and patient menus. Optimizing enteral nutrition therapy with formulas made of nutrient-dense, plant-based ingredients can significantly improve clinical outcomes, particularly in patients with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), renal disease, Crohn’s disease, cystic fibrosis and cancer.
Some hospitals host farmer’s markets on-site as a way of increasing access to plant-based foods and strengthening their presence within communities. For instance, Kaiser Permanente—the nation’s largest not-for-profit health system—holds recurring farmers markets at their facilities across several states to promote healthy eating to community members and patients. Hospitals like Beaumont Hospital in Dearborn, Michigan, also hold a weekly farmers market on its grounds. [Editor’s Note: Kaiser Permanente is a client of the author’s employer.]
Additionally, addressing barriers to plant-based nutrition, especially for those facing financial concerns or living in food deserts where nutritious, affordable food is limited, is critical. Food prescription programs allow doctors to prescribe fresh produce to their patients as an effective line of treatment that promotes healthy dietary habits and allows patients to purchase more nutritious foods that they might not otherwise be able to afford.
Embracing the plant-forward trend in the healthcare setting creates an indispensable opportunity to ensure more patients benefit from the profound health-related outcomes of plant-based nutrition. Hospitals have a responsibility to continually improve quality of care, and offering nourishing, plant-based meals and medical food options are critical for enhancing patient outcomes, reducing health care costs, and lowering the risk of chronic diseases among its community.
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