“Eat Food, Not Too Much, Mostly Plants”: RX to Avoid Hospitals and Their Cafés 

By Ellen Voynow for Respvblica

I’m standing in the cafeteria of a prestigious American teaching hospital, thinking of writer Michael Pollan’s adage, demolished.

Well-lit glistening pizzas, fried chicken, burgers, cheesesteaks, mac and cheese, onion rings, french fries, pies, cakes and cookies feature prominently — as do packaged snacks of potato chips and Tastykakes.

Self-serve choices of salads, sushi rolls and fruit occupy peripheral sections of the room. At staff-served grilling stations, the healthy dishes offered are no more creative than bland roasted vegetables.

Obviously easy profits and patrons’ palates drive these choices.

Still, such a sight is an odd incongruity — given our knowledge in 2018 of connections between fried, high fat-and-sugar, low fiber foods and chronic inflammatory conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer affecting many of those who occupy the adjacent floors and wings here.

This is, after all, an institution dedicated to restoring health… or rather, to practicing medicine.  It may not seem as absurd as the sight of people smoking inside hospital walls would be.  But it comes close.

Stranger still is the sense of normalcy with which medical professionals as well as visitors seem to accept the dominance of fast food items in this setting, and how typical this scenario is among similar institutions across the country.

Yet tune into Dr. Oz’s show any day of the week and it will feature a number of antioxidant plant-based foods as major contributors to tackle chronic inflammatory illnesses.  Endless online and popular magazine articles discuss such foods and our health.  Popular books abound on the subject, like Dan Buettner’s The Blue Zones, which studied communities in Sardinia, Nicoya (Costa Rica), Icaria (Greece), Okinawa and Loma Linda, California, where many healthy centenarians, who live on predominantly plant-based, whole-food diets, are found; and Walking with Peety, the story of Eric O’Grey, a 350-pound man who by his early 60s finally got sick and tired of being sick and tired, and chose to see a doctor who prescribed two things:  eat a plant-based diet and adopt a shelter dog for companionship and daily walks.  O’Grey, who requested a middle-aged overweight dog at the shelter, started to lose weight, along with his dog. He was off his insulin injections and high blood pressure and cholesterol medicines speedily thereafter, as was magician Penn Jillette, who too, like O’Grey, rejected bariatric surgery in favor of a plant-based regimen, as he described in his book, Presto! How I Made Over 100 Pounds Disappear and Other Magical Tales.

Netlix documentaries, like Forks Over Knives, compellingly examine links between plant-based diets and reduction of incidence of such diseases as hypertension, arthritis, diabetes and cancer.

Recipes for healthy dishes have burgeoned, many in conjunction with such popular books, TV shows and documentaries, using plant-based ingredients, and that include herbs and spices like cilantro, turmeric and dried ginger, with powerful anti-inflammatory properties.  And if a certain craving strikes, the Impossible™ Burger has now come closer than any non-animal product to matching the flavor and texture of a beef burger.

Still, despite all the recipes, the colorfully attractive retail juicing bars, farmers’ and whole food markets and urban gardens, our motivation isn’t yet strong enough to challenge our palates and make the switch to primarily plant-based diets that would drastically reduce our risk of disease.

On the supply side, powerful sugar, meat, dairy and other lobbying interests (as well as — a discussion for another time — much of the pharmaceutical industry) wouldn’t want that any other way.

Could there be incentives to create appealing menu and interior design changes in hospital cafés to highlight the healthy and marginalize the unhealthy? Encourage any interested party to open a dialog with hospitals’ boards and food vendors?  Absolutely.  Have state or city governments impose regulations without public consent?  No.  At least unlike cigarettes, eating creates no risk of ‘second-hand’ illness affecting others.  Former NYC Mayor Bloomberg through his administration tried regulating sodas, and a backlash ensued.

I’m in this cafeteria in the first place while visiting a family member recovering from the surgical removal of a tumor who could potentially spend many hours and thousands of dollars on hospital, rehab and/or pharmaceutical care, and whose risks for spending such time and money on treatment would likely have been reduced drastically by adopting a mostly whole-food plant-based diet.

It’d be a hell of a lot cheaper for him and most of us if we lived in a pocket of the world where, like Buettner’s Blue Zones, we could be quite unaffected by the temptations of the “Standard American Diet.”  But because that will never happen, we as a culture will just endure our current riskier course — whether or not it leads enough of us to become sick and tired of being sick and tired.

Meanwhile, hospitals would indeed send a powerful symbolic message if their in-house menus and design layouts didn’t convey, “Give me your tired, your sick, yearning for old time comfort food and come back often,” but rather, “We want our public and your loved ones healthy and strong to get out of here ASAP!”

This piece was written by Ellen Voynow, a New York City resident.

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