How Healthy Is Hospital Food?

Jell-O, chicken broth, mashed potatoes.

For most patients, this traditional hospital fare leaves a lot to be desired.

Hospitals should be the gold standard of healthy eating, advocates say, since patients go there to get better, and eating well is a crucial part of wellness.

Some hospitals throughout the country are starting to change, with tailor-made patient menus that use locally grown food and focus on fruits and veggies. "More than ever, patients are making the connection between chronic conditions and diet," says Susan Levin, a registered dietitian with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

Some research shows that hospitalized patients crave healthier food, Levin adds. "They crave fresh fruits and veggies, not greasy food. I don't think hospitals are so different than food environments outside of hospitals ... You see a trend where the public is demanding healthier food."

Levin says hospitals are also increasingly providing a la carte menu options -- so if you're vegetarian, or even vegan, you're not just going to just get a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

[Read: Best Diets for Healthy Eating .]

Hospitals eat local. Overall, some hospitals are incorporating healthier food into all the food they serve, says Lucia Sayre, co-executive director of the San Francisco Bay Area Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Sayre cites several hospitals that are proactive about healthy eating: UCLA Medical Center is using organic food. Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington, Vermont, uses antibiotic-free meat. And John Muir Medical Center in California revamped its patient menus top to bottom and is now offering quinoa and brown rice, antibiotic-free meat and hormone-free dairy.

Sayre also co-coordinates an initiative called Health Care Without Harm that puts out reports on hospitals' changing menus. The reports specifically designate the institutions that have signed its Healthy Food in Health Care Pledge. So far, more than 500 places have signed the pledge. This means they have begun to implement changes such as buying from local producers, eliminating fast-food restaurants and vending machines in food courts, creating hospital gardens and hosting farmers markets on the hospital grounds. The latest report cites hospitals that are doing well.

"In the past two to three years, we've seen incredible momentum," Sayre says. "What we've seen with the pledge is that it really becomes part of their marketing strategy. They are advertising the fact that they are part of a sustainable food program."

Sayre adds that most of the pledge-signing hospitals have vegetarian options; some also have vegan and gluten-free options.

[Read: America Tops List of 10 Most Obese Countries.]

BYO food. Levin advises patients who are on special diets to call hospitals ahead of time. "See what they have. Be an advocate for yourself," Levin says. "It seems a shame that you have to advocate for your health in a hospital. Just know that you may be your greatest nutritional ally in that environment, and just go in and demand the best. If they can't provide that to you, make a lot of noise, but don't compromise. Make food and bring it with you. Have someone bring it to you."

Going into the hospital reminds her of traveling. "You can't bank on the airport or interstate to have what you want, so you have to provide it for yourself," she says.

Another commonality between hospitals and transportation hubs are the food courts, which feature standard fast-food fare. The PCRM is a watchdog of food options in hospitals' public areas. It has issued three reports that identify hospitals with the worst food environments. Its most recent report, from this year, looked specifically at heart hospital food environments. The worst was Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center in Richmond, Virginia, which has five fast food outlets and serves roast beef to patients.

On a positive note, Levin says that since PCRM started doing its report, at least six hospitals closed their McDonald's.

[Read: 6 Tips for Eating Healthy on Minimum Wage.]

Eat to heal. Having fast food in hospitals -- even if patients aren't eating it -- perpetuates an idea that that kind of food is OK to eat, Levin says. "To have that kind of food in a hospital gives patients and caregivers the perception that that kind of food is appropriate -- when, in fact, it's those types of foods that have brought people into the hospital in the first place."

Some would argue that fast food is occasional comfort food, however. If you're sick enough to be in the hospital, how much sicker could your favorite milkshake really make you?

But Sayre says hospitals could be the turning point for patients to eat healthier. "Good food can help speed the healing process, and hospitals can be really good models," she says. She adds that all it takes are simple touches like bookmarks on hospital trays explaining why patients are getting a piece of whole food -- because it's in-season -- instead of a cut-up fruit.

"It's probably the best opportunity in educating the patient in how not to return," Levin adds.

[Read: Top-Rated Diets Overall.]

Kristine Crane is a Patient Advice reporter at U.S. News. You can follow her on Twitter, connect with her on LinkedIn or email her at