Ontario hospitals cut the fryer fat to boost heart health

A group of people share a meal of fries, hands grab for fries. (Thinkstock)

Hospitals in Eastern Ontario are working to get the deep fryers out of their cafeterias in a bid to improve healthy options for patients, visitors and staff — a development health advocates welcome.

Removing deep fryers, dropping super-sized drinks and cutting sodium content are three of the measures hospitals are taking as part of the Healthy Foods in Champlain Hospitals initiative. All 20 hospitals in the region have signed on the program voluntarily.

“Hospitals really should be the role models for healthy eating because we deal with the after effects of unhealthy eating,” Sabine Mersmann, vice-president of patient service in seniors and community care at Pembroke Regional Hospital, tells Yahoo Canada News.

Healthy Foods is an initiative of Champlain Cardiovascular Disease Prevention Network, which focuses on reducing cardiovascular disease in the area by cutting risk factors like high sodium consumption, obesity, high blood pressure and low consumption of fruits and vegetables.

The goals of Healthy Foods in Champlain Hospitals are to both remove less-healthy options from hospitals in the region while offering both more healthier options and more nutritional information.

Pembroke Regional Hospital has just achieved the bronze level of the program, which means removing deep fryers and deep-fried options from hospital cafeterias and gift stores, and providing clear nutritional information for their entrees. Changes have already been made in the cafeterias in hospitals in Pembroke, Renfrew, Almonte, Arnprior, Carleton Place, Kemptville and Winchester.

“That went over fairly well and was actually, for the kitchen, a great initiative and they’re very proud of it,” Mersmann says.

Health advocates have long called for measures like the Healthy Foods initiative. A 2008 editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal called for healthier options in hospitals, reading “despite nutrition’s indisputable role as one of our most important determinants of health, grassroots calls for hospital cafeteria reform often face resistance from hospital administrators and even some allied health professionals.”

But hospitals and groups across the country have since made changes. For example, Scarborough Hospital in Toronto worked to offer a variety of food options to patients that are made in house, with more fresh ingredients, and that reflect the diversity of the area’s residents. Deep fryers have been banned in hospitals in Nova Scotia and Quebec. The cafeteria in Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children focuses on local food, particularly produce. And Farm to Cafeteria Canada is working to make local, fresh foods more available in public institutions, hospitals included.

The goal is for all hospitals in the Healthy Foods initiative to hit bronze by December, Mersmann says. The next level, silver, expands on the initiatives by removing more high-sugar beverages from the offerings, reducing fat and sugar in baked goods like muffins, and offering nutritional information for a wider variety of items. After that, the gold level means cutting sodium in food offerings, removing snacks like chocolate and candy, and reducing beverage options further.

Because Pembroke’s cafeteria offerings are provided through a single supportive vendor, it’s been easier to move ahead with changes, Mersmann says.

Gold will be tough for hospitals to achieve if they have franchises on campus, she acknowledges. For example, Tim Hortons has franchises in several hospitals in the Champlain region — and its doughnuts are deep fried.

“That’s a fairly extreme level,” Mersmann says of the gold level. “This is easier to achieve in a cafeteria environment.”

The effects of programs like Healthy Foods may not be seen for years, Mersmann says.

“You have to look way down the road,” she says. “These are projects that will affect the health of people maybe 10 years down the road, 15 years down the road.”

But Mersmann hopes that what’s being done in hospitals will spread beyond their cafeterias and gift shops.

“It’s really ensuring we offer food choices that meet the healthier guidelines and really to ensure that we promote healthy eating to our own staff,” she says, “and that they can also promote to their patients and families.”