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Increasing plant-based offerings at hospitals can improve community health outcomes

Diet directly affects patient clinical outcomes. Still, many hospitals have historically offered unhealthy food options – a decision that affects millions of people living with food allergies, chronic diseases, and GI intolerance. Patients who need tube feeding have even fewer allergen-free options, as the enteral formulations that are predominantly available to them contain synthetic ingredients that lead to digestive disorders and intolerance and can lead to longer stays in the intensive care unit.

Research showing that the plant-based diet is an effective tool in the prevention, treatment, and treatment of some of the most common chronic diseases in the United States is growing. Studies show that following a plant-based diet can reduce the risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure, as well as cognitive decline and dementia. In addition, research shows that oncology and pediatric patients using herbal enteral formulas experience improved tolerability and weight maintenance, which enables them to treat their illnesses more effectively and improve their overall quality of life. In fact, increasing adherence to a plant-based diet could prevent up to 80 percent of chronic disease and save the US healthcare system billions of dollars.

Fortunately, as health care providers and patients discover the benefits of a plant-based diet, more hospitals and health systems are adopting the “food as medicine” philosophy by offering meals and enteral formulas with an emphasis on fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds offering, legumes and Whole grain products. And while some states, including California and New York, are requiring hospitals to offer plant-based meals, healthcare facilities across the country are well positioned to promote the value of plant-based nutrition for patients, visitors, and employees.

Here are tips for adding herbal options to hospital and health systems menus and enteral nutrition formulas, as well as some recent initiatives promoting healthy lifestyles beyond the hospital walls and in the community.

Cafeteria and patient menus
The American Medical Association (AMA) urges hospitals to remove processed meat from their menus as studies show that consuming processed meat can cause colon, stomach, pancreatic, prostate, and breast cancers, as well as cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes is related. Instead, AMA recommends including plant-based menu options for hospital patients, visitors, and staff.

Hospitals and health systems should start reviewing their menus and identifying gaps where fresh, plant-based ingredients can be used to offer a nutritionally complete meal. Engage key administrators and staff throughout the process while communicating the benefits of including plant-based foods on the menu. Leverage resources from organizations like the Coalition for Plant-Based Foods in Hospitals to develop plant-based nutrition training, culinary training, recipes, and marketing strategies for introducing these new plant-based menu options.

Enteral feeding forms

While updating bedside and hospital canteen food services is essential to promoting healthy lifestyles, ensuring patients have access to medicinal foods made with the highest quality plant-based ingredients is critical to improving their health outcomes. These foods are engineered to help patients manage their illness, and yet the formulas are often not well regulated for effectiveness. For example, there are no regulations against additives and no minimum requirements for essential vitamins and minerals. Some contain nutritionally inferior ingredients like corn syrup, while others contain sources of protein like dairy products that can cause allergies or an immune reaction.

An important first step in evaluating enteral nutritional formulas is assessing the patient population and estimated nutritional needs. Similar to the inclusion of plant-based menu options, this initial assessment enables hospitals and healthcare systems to identify gaps where enteral formulations for specific nutritional needs and diseases can be added to support their unique patient populations.

When it comes to incorporating a healthy plant-based diet, hospitals and healthcare systems need to keep their enteral feeding recipes on par with their canteen and patient menus. Optimizing enteral nutrition therapy with formulas made from nutrient-rich, plant-based ingredients can significantly improve clinical outcomes, especially in patients with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), kidney disease, Crohn’s disease, cystic fibrosis, and cancer.

Commitment to the community

Some hospitals host on-site farmers’ markets to improve access to plant-based foods and increase their presence in communities. For example, Kaiser Permanente – the country’s largest nonprofit health care system – hosts recurring farmers’ markets at its facilities in several states to promote healthy eating for community members and patients. Hospitals such as Beaumont Hospital in Dearborn, Michigan also host a weekly farmers market on their premises. [Editor’s Note: Kaiser Permanente is a client of the author’s employer.]

In addition, addressing barriers to a plant-based diet is crucial, especially for those with financial concerns or living in food deserts where nutritious, affordable foods are limited. Food prescription programs allow doctors to prescribe fresh products to their patients as an effective line of treatment that promotes healthy eating habits and enables patients to purchase more nutritious foods that they might otherwise not be able to afford.

Addressing the “plant-forward” trend in healthcare provides a vital opportunity to ensure that more patients benefit from the profound health-related outcomes of plant-based nutrition. Hospitals have a responsibility to continually improve the quality of care, and providing nutritious, plant-based meals and medicinal food options are critical to improving patient outcomes, lowering healthcare costs, and reducing the risk of chronic disease in the population.

Photo: noipornpan, Getty Images

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