Hospital food not only tastes bad, it actually isn’t good for you

Hospital food will never win awards for taste. But shouldn't it at least be healthy?While it's not as though hospitals have ever been lauded for their gourmet cuisine, the idea that you're filling your body with the nutrients it needs to heal has certainly inspired more than one patient to force that last bit of rubbery mystery meat down the hatch.

Because when you're lying prostrate in a bed on wheels, IV firmly hooked into your right arm and your wellbeing in the hands of the people around you, it's important to trust your health is being looked after from top to bottom.

But according to the CBC, your gag reflex may have been trying to tell you something all along.

According to a host of experts sourced by the news network, hospitals often use frozen, processed food out of cost and convenience — food that, naturally, lacks proper nutrition. It's edible, but it's not actually good for you.

"The vegetables are frozen and it is convenient, but they are so waterlogged that they are really not there," Joshna Maharaj, a Toronto-based chef and healthy food advocate told the CBC. "It is just empty, spongy versions of themselves."

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Heather Fletcher, manager of food services at Toronto's St. Michael's Hospital, said that hospitals will often "take cold, processed foods such as lasagna and spoon it out onto patient trays that are heated on carts," while the other half of the tray stays chilled for the cold foods.

And that's just from the professionals. Former patients were less kind when describing their dinnertime ordeals.

"There was a giant blob of purple vegetable matter; after a couple of reluctant tastes, I couldn't identify what it once was. I never dreamed that hospital food could be used as an incentive to check out as quickly as possible," reader Leonard Matte wrote about his stay at a Prince George, B.C., hospital, although he emphasized the excellent care he received from the doctors and nursing staff.

Much of the issue can be boiled down to cost. Cash-strapped hospitals allot the majority of their budget toward treating patients medically, not gastronomically — a principle that would appear to be sound.

Paule Bernier, a registered dietician at Montreal's Jewish General Hospital who co-authored a study on hospital food, found that most hospitals put aside around 1 per cent of their budget — or $8 per day — for food.

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But the danger lies in those patients not getting the nutrients they need during convalescence.

Even if they're having trouble keeping food down post-surgery or simply have a diminished appetite, it's important that what little these patients manage to digest staves off malnutrition — a condition that can put them at the risk of infection and longer recuperation.

Although hospitals often employ dieticians to educate patients on the importance of proper nutrition, there appears to be a disconnect between this advice and the options that appear on dinner trays.

Thankfully, a handful of hospitals are starting to take the issue seriously. Maharaj has spent the past year churning out healthy, homemade meals at Scarborough hospital in Toronto's east end, while North York General Hospital in Toronto implemented a "restaurant-style" meal system to great fanfare in 2009.

Until these exception become the rule, however, you may want to pack a few healthy snacks before hitting the triage.

(Photo courtesy CBC)