“Let Food be thy Medicine and Medicine be thy food” wrote Hippocrates – ‘the father of modern medicine’, circa 400 bc!
How many of us think about the food we are given while we are sick and vunerable in hospital or repairing ourselves after surgery? We may instinctively choose lighter food that’s easier for us to digest or we may in fact lose our appetites altogether but we seldom give it much further consideration.
Hospital ‘menu’s’ are often full of foods that many of us would never eat normally and even something as common place as vegetarianism can present as a major challenge to most hospitals. There are certainly no organic options or even locally sourced options and very little attention is paid to providing foods that are both nutritious and non-toxic to each individuals needs. Most people do not even think about what food they are being given while they are sick and largely immobile, and there are numerous cases of patients with a compromised Liver being given food that is high in sugar or sweeteners and lots of fats – both of which present significant problems to an already struggling liver. Much of the foods are simply bought in ready packaged and processed and there is very poor understanding of what actually constitutes real, food that nourishes and actually aids repair.
Many of us have already found out that certain foods don’t agree with us, we may be Gluten intolerant or Dairy intolerant or Vegan or Wheat-free or trying to re-build our guts with fermented vegetables, probiotics and bone broths. There are a wealth of different approaches to how we take in food or nutrients and it is a matter of trial, experience and a lot of reading, to find what works for you. Why should any of us be forced to compromise our health by eating food that we know is damaging, at the very time when we should be paying the most attention to our diet?
I was both encouraged and disappointed to stumble upon an HSE funded report published in 2009 with a forward by Mary Harney, TD, Minister for health and children, which delved into this very topic. The report opened with the correlation between nutrition and the length of time spent in hospital “…the length of time a patient spends in hospital and the cost of that stay is linked to the patients nutritional status”. One study quoted, compared 2 groups of patients – one well nourished and one malnourished, and found that there was an increased mortality rate amongst the malnourished group and that same group spend an average of 16 – 24 days in hospital as opposed to an average of 10 days in the well nourished group. The report then presented ‘Guidelines for preventing under-nutrition in acute hospitals’ and recognised that “the food served in hospitals is part of the patients clinical treatment”, and that all too often food is given a “low priority instead of being recognised as an integral and important part of patient treatment and care.” These guidelines advised various basic improvements such as observing religious and ethnic beliefs around food and ensuring that some kind of food is available throughout the day instead of the often draconian set meal times. Importantly the report included the following recommendations:-
Nutrition should be included as a subject in medical schools and should cover the basic physiology and pathophysiology, diagnosis, treatment and prevention of under nutrition”
The role of the nurse in nutritional care of patients should be standardised and taught as part of Nurses training.”
(It’s great that the report came to this conclusion but why the hell isn’t it already part of any medical training??)
Whilst I was encouraged by all this revelation (!) I was then immediately disappointed by the poor quality of the actual food menu’s presented as a template and the obvious lack of any in depth knowledge of the importance of organically grown, chemical free foods and the over reliance on packaged food and ‘food pyramid’ style advice. So, a lot of potential but not adequately followed through and more importantly, recent experiences related to me by friends and family, confirm that very little has changed since this report was published nearly 7 years ago!
A very good friend of mine has recently turned her life around after a diagnosis of Breast Cancer, she is now clear after 4 years of hard work and self discovery. She chose to adopt The Gerson protocol (www.gerson.org), as her main health model to heal herself and after approximately 18 months of de-toxing and re-building herself, she chose to have her tumour removed surgically. She knew she had a much better chance of a good outcome having ‘cleaned’ her body up and strengthened her immune system. She was horrified to see what the hospital was offering a cancer patient to eat – a menu full of all the toxic foods that would be guaranteed to feed any ill health never mind cancer! So her friends and family took it in turns to make the 4 hour round trip to take her organic, non toxic foods so she could continue her self repair. This story is not uncommon, in fact it is the norm. If Jamie Oliver in the UK can help turn around the quality of the food offered to school children, maybe he or someone like him, can turn their attention to the appalling state of ‘food’, (and I use this term loosely), offered in Hospitals?
What can we do individually to ensure that we get food that is appropriate to our needs and does not contribute to our ill health? Well, we have to take some responsibility ourselves and draw up our own lists of foods that we are not prepared to or cannot eat and submit this to the hospital staff when we are first advised to have whatever surgery or treatment is being recommended. The above mentioned guidelines state that “All menus must, wherever possible, take in to account patients preferences” and “the clinical nutritionist/dietician or physician should be aware of the patients use of ‘alternative diets’ and the influence these might have on nutritional status”. Make it a priority for you to get the best possible food that you can, within the perameters of each hospital. The more of us that ask for or demand good food the more likely it is that the system will eventually change and hopefully follow the example of the more enlightened hospitals I mention below.
What we eat, and drink, is absolutely vital to our health and well being – from the famous experiment done by film maker Morgan Spurlock where he spent 30 days eating nothing but MacDonald’s and filmed the rapid decline in his health (see film ‘Supersize Me’), to numerous examples of people reversing Cancer and other Chronic “incurable” dis-eases using food
(eg ). There is so much excellent information and hard evidence regarding the importance of what we ingest into our bodies that we ignore it at our peril. Hippocrates, the Father of modern medicine states “All dis-ease starts in the gut” – not 30% of dis-ease, or 50% or even 80% – “ALL DIS-EASE STARTS IN THE GUT”. Our digestive tracts – from our mouths to our anus – are a complex balance of bacteria, a universe of tiny workers that, when in balance, work together to receive, process/break down and distribute or dispose of the food that we eat. If you think about it this, (very long and complex), tube is not actually inside us at all but is outside the vital organs and part of it’s job is to protect those vital organs from damage. 80% of our immune system is in the gut, why – because this is our ‘frontline’. Potentially damaging elements that we may ingest unwittingly, must be stopped from penetrating the gut wall and entering the ‘inner sanctum’ where our vital organs operate. Once this ‘front line’ is broken due to an overwhelming amount of toxins, then pathology follows. Hence if we are already sick and ill, it follows that our guts have already reached this fragile state and are in need of TLC and careful food management. Most people I meet, once they understand this, immediately start to see how foods grown with pesticides, genetically modified foods, refined sugar, fast foods and meats full of anti-biotics/steroids/hormones etc would not be a good idea to serve to already ill people. Yet this is exactly what is done when we stay in most hospitals!
‘Ensure’ is a product routinely given to the terminally ill both in hospitals and hospices and yet it has been shown to be not only nutritionally void but positively harmful. It is predominantly sugar and water laced with preservatives, additives, artificial flavourings, colour and salt! Common side effects are constipation, diarrhoea, vomiting and nausea, and can lead to more serious symptoms such as seizures and breathing difficulties. These drinks can also interact with prescription drugs. It may be worth reminding hospitals that regular, good old fashioned food doesn’t produce side effects! Bone broths and vegetable soups, vegetable juices or fruit smoothies are easy to digest and highly nutritious but of course are not mass produced and packaged and therefore not ‘money spinners’!
An increasing number of more enlightened hospitals around the world, are taking the initiative and starting their own vegetable gardens and greenhouses, employing resident hospital farmers. After a short time of growing they are not only feeding their patients but hosting their own farmers markets and supplying local cafe’s as well as running educational food and gardening classes. Along with this enterprising approach has come a change in the position of these hospitals within their communities – they are fostering a symbiotic relationship with the people that they serve and play a key role in the health education of all age groups. Teach someone how to eat healthily and, better still, how to grow that healthy food and you start to see changes in the general health of the whole community! There is no reason other than greed, (haha), that our hospitals cannot become self sufficient centres of excellence when it comes to nutrition. It is of paramount importance that we receive the very best of care when we most need it and food is an integral part of that care. If patients are fed proper nutritious food , they will recover better and faster thus freeing up hospital beds and possibly avoiding repeat visits. In my view there should be Naturapaths, Nutritionists and Gardeners on every hospital staff as well as a well staffed kitchen equipped with juicers and people who can actually cook not just heat up ready prepared food! It is only then that hospitals will become places of recuperation and recovery and learning – if you want to stop someone from repeatedly getting ill, then teach them how to take care of themselves and that starts with good food!