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NHS Hospitals Making Patients Fat? Fear over the Amount of Junk Food Available

Posted on Jul 23, 2013 by Sergio Ulloa ()  | Tags: Aseem Malhotra, cardiologist, diet, doctors, health problems, hospital, junk food, NHS, obesity, UK, vending machines.

References to food served at UK hospitals are rarely kind, whether it be general complaints about overcooked, bland meals; news about budgets for hospital meals being squeezed further, or the reports from earlier this year which claimed that hospitals were supplied with meals and meat containing traces of horsemeat.

Last week, another hospital food related story gained a lot of attention, focussing on the junk food served up as hospital meals and the amount of snacks on sale at shops and vending machines at public hospitals around the country. Doctors have raised fresh fears about the health risks associated with these foods and snacks.

During the British Medical Association's annual conference which took place in Edinburgh  last week, a group of doctors supported claims for hospitals to ban all forms of junk food being sold on the premises, restricting all junk food prepared in hospital kitchens, sold from hospital trolleys, vending machines or newsagents on site. In the case of Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge, this ban will be especially effective as the hospital facilities even include a fast food chain on the premises. According to doctors such as cardiology specialist registrar Aseem Malhotra, selling junk food products at hospitals completely sends out the wrong message about the connections between junk foods and obesity.

This is not the first time that Malhotra has spoken out against the risks associated with junk food. The well renowned  anti-obesity campaigner has written articles for British newspaper The Guardian on several occasions, where he describes the realities of his job at one of Britain's leading cardiac centres where he regularly sees patients eating exactly the foods that they should not be eating- and often the very foods which caused them to be in hospital in the first place.

The main argument from Malhotra - and many other doctors who have voted for the ban - is that these foods are proven to contribute to health problems. Doctors regularly perform surgery or treat for patients who have diabetes, mobility problems, heart conditions and heart disease knowing that these complications are very often linked to bad diet.

In February 2011, Malhotra published an article in The Guardian in which he described the scenes he regularly saw on the hospital wards he worked on: children regularly served options such as chicken nuggets, sausage rolls, fish fingers, pizzas and pasties. His argument at the time, was that the health service prided itself on prevention rather than cure, but that in reality, the standard of the food available in hospitals only encouraged the risk of more people developing coronary artery disease.

Over the last two years, Malhotra has become increasingly committed to fighting the battle against obesity in the UK. Last week, he declared the fast food in hospitals situation as 'obscene' and called for hospitals to join him in taking a stance against selling junk food. He used a number of statistics to emphasise the dangerous levels of overweight and obese people currently living in the UK: 60% of UK adults are medically overweight and obese and one third of children in the UK are overweight or obese by the time they leave primary school. In Malhotra's opinion, hospitals need to take a stance and improve the quality of food available to patients. A similar scheme to the one which Jamie Oliver promoted across UK schools would be highly welcomed in an attempt to cut out foods like burgers, chips and fizzy drinks and ensure that more than peas and sweetcorn are available as vegetable options.

Of course, making this commitment to improving the quality of the food available at hospitals will come at a cost to the NHS. Critics of the NHS have even claimed that the reason why franchises like Burger King, McDonalds and Costa have made it onto hospital sites is to generate an additional source of income. Many doctors believe that for too many years, the NHS has focused on short term financial goals without considering the long term concerns of the community. Hospitals deny that this is the reason.

Last week, the NHS Confederation's director of policy, Dr Johnny Marshall made a statement saying: "There isn't a hospital trust in the country that would prioritise the relatively small amount of income they get from these sources above the overall health of their local community".

The NHS Confederation, which is the main body that comes together and speaks on behalf of the whole of the NHS, stated that the ban was unnecessary. Many hospitals argued that the ban would be too strict a move and could have an a negative impact on NHS patients who find pleasure and relief in sweets and chocolate during difficult and emotional times at hospital.

There are also fears over the number of medical workers who are also overweight. News about the number of vending machines and fast food outlets on NHS sites is an equally important consideration for those busy often stressed doctors, nurses and other health workers who might not have time to arrange more healthy food options for their meals during work hours. In a recent article on the topic, one young doctor argued that it was nice to have the option of buying crisps or soft drinks at the end of a shift. Overall though, most doctors agree that the attitude towards diet within NHS hospitals has to change.

The Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, which represents 220,000 doctors across the UK, is taking a stance against the junk food and put its support behind the ban; to make a move towards sending a better message about the obesity crisis in the UK and to remove what Malhotra calls: "Selling sickness in hospital grounds".

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