Anyone who has spent time in hospital, as a patient or visitor, will know the food options on offer can be seriously limited. And in times of high stress it is tempting to reach for comfort foods – crisps, sweets, carbohydrates and vending machine treats – rather than fruit or vegetables.
Would banning unhealthy foods in hospital cafes and canteens in order to push customers towards healthier choices make the experience worse or better? Or just compound what is already an unpleasant time?
The proposal has been floated after researchers from the University of Aberdeen looked at junk food and drink on sale in UK hospitals and found three quarters of the best-selling items were unhealthy with high calorie, fat and sugar content.
Although these items were on sale alongside fruit (apple and grapes bags) and non-fizzy drinks including black tea and water, patients, visitors and medical staff consistently went for unhealthy snacks.
Some of the worst offending items on sale in NHS hospitals included pork pies with 39g of fat, fizzy drinks with 65g of sugar, and slices of raspberry cake that contained 641 calories.
The authors said considering high rates of obesity in the UK (the Department of Health estimates more than 50% of NHS staff are overweight or obese, similar to levels in the general population) these offerings were hard to justify.
Although they held back from proposing an outright ban on junk food in NHS facilities, the authors of the study did float the idea and suggest that caps could limit the calorie, fat, sugar and salt content of individual items.
And other experts, including Aseem Malhotra, an NHS consultant cardiologist and professor of evidence-based medicine, said a ban should be introduced.
“Hospitals should be setting an example,” he told The Guardian. “We need to ban the sale of junk food completely in hospitals. If people want to buy this stuff, that’s fine, they can go out and get it, but hospitals should not be selling it. They should be selling decent, healthy food.”
Would a ban on unhealthy food push people towards healthier options by default? Or would it make a tough time – the lack of sleep, stress and worry, that hospital smell and bright overhead lighting – harder to deal with?
Experts say providing unhealthy food in hospitals can generate what is called a “health halo” that makes people perceive junk food as better because it’s being sold in a medical setting. If a future ban were introduced on unhealthy food, researchers say people could still bring their own snacks into the hospital.
The NHS has started to make steps to improving the nutritional offering of hospital food and since 2017, hospitals in Scotland have had to ensure at least half of the products they sell meet “enhanced nutritional standards”. In the same year, NHS England began to offer cash incentives to hospitals if 80% of their snacks had fewer than 250 calories.