The end of Tim Hortons on hospital grounds?

The war on obesity is going to hospital cafeterias, in a movement that could mean more tofu and no treats for patients and their families


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You know what they say about the healing power of hospital food… if it tasted better you’d never want to leave.

Food served in hospitals has long been the butt of jokes and complaints. Sensitive to these age-old grievances, many health care institutions have lately tried to improve the appeal of the hospital diet, both by upping the quality and variety of what their kitchens serve to patients, and by inviting name-brand restaurants to sell their wares in food courts. With greater choice has come more and better options—and, in many cases, grudging approval from health care consumers.

Now, however, some doctors want to make hospital food the next battle ground in the interminable war against obesity. Bans and restrictions may soon take the place of wide-ranging choice and taste. Say good bye to that double-double and doughnut pick-me-up in the hospital lobby. Or a ham sandwich for lunch. Instead, you may soon only be able to find doctor-prescribed whole wheat tofu bean sprout wraps and tap water.

Hospital food is about to get unappetizing again.

Last month the American Medical Association passed a resolution at its annual meeting calling for sweeping changes to the diversity of food available in hospitals for patients and visitors alike. These demands include a full prohibition on sugary drinks, including soda, juice and iced tea, in favour of water, white milk and unsweetened hot beverages. The U.S. doctors’ group also wants to ban processed meats of all kinds. Preference instead should be given to “plant-based meals and meals that are low in fat, sodium, and added sugars.”

While this resolution has no legal force, it is indicative of the general urge within public health and food policy circles. Given the steady stream of demands for soda taxes, calorie counts, advertising regulations and strict mandates over school food, the AMA resolution appears as yet one more effort to seize control of the public diet by force. You can’t smoke on hospital grounds, why should you be allowed to eat a cookie?

This campaign is finding equivalent support among Canadian doctors, such as Rob Stevenson, a cardiologist from Saint John, N.B. Stevenson once argued in a Canadian Medical Journal editorial that “junk food is the new tobacco” and so hospitals should ban fried foods and other unhealthy meals from their cafeterias. He’s also spear-headed a cross-country survey on the state of Canadian hospital food and led a publicity campaign that saw a Halifax hospital shut down its deep-fat fryer.

“The AMA statement addresses several of the leading concerns with hospital food,” says Stevenson in an interview. “And I think it would find reasonable agreement across dietitians and the medical community here [in Canada].” He notes approvingly that the U.S. doctors’ resolution is in line with what’s already happening in high school cafeterias across Canada, with many provinces banning deep-fried foods, excessive cheese, soda and other sugary drinks in favour of baked potato wedges and cardboard-like pizza slices—circumstances that have led to a dramatic reduction in cafeteria use by students.

If Canada does accept hospital food restrictions as per the AMA plan, Stevenson is adamant they must apply equally to retail food outlets as well as hospital-run kitchens. “You can’t take unhealthy foods out of the cafeteria, and then let Tim Hortons sell the same stuff in the first-floor lobby,” he says. Such a policy would likely require an end to most franchised restaurants in hospitals. (That said, Stevenson, who follows a strict vegan diet, does confess to enjoying the occasional unbuttered multigrain bagel and black coffee from the Tim Hortons in his hospital lobby. “Sometimes that might get me through a long night on-call,” he says. Yum.)

But while doctors may claim to have the best interests of patients and visitors in mind in their scheme to impose a diet of “plant-based meals” and water in hospitals, such efforts inevitably invoke images of another type of government-funded institution with a similarly captive clientele—prisons. The AMA plan entails the imposition of an herbivore’s diet on people who may well prefer to remain omnivorous, and without their consent.

Even if we consider it socially and politically acceptable to impose food controls on high school students, adults who aren’t guests of a correctional system ought to retain the right to make their own decisions about what they eat: in hospital lobbies or their own homes. Remember, doctors don’t impose treatment, they recommend it. Regardless of the current public health obsession over obesity, food liberty deserves a defense.

When patients are surveyed on hospital food, choice is almost always their number one concern. Australian research shows, for example, that providing multiple options at lunch or dinner can reverse the large, negative impact length-of-stay typically has on patient satisfaction. Planetree Inc, a not-for-profit U.S.-based advocate for “patient-centred health care”, similarly observes serving appetizing food that caters to patients’ personal choice and palate is “essential to encouraging consumption of their meals.” Some U.S. hospitals, it notes with approval, “supplement daily menus with a standing comfort food menu that includes food items with broad appeal, such as grill items.” Yet another survey by health care consultant HBG Health found 89 per cent of hospital patients said being served name-brand products at meal time would make them feel better.

A preponderance of evidence demonstrates that patients place overwhelming importance on having a say in what they eat. And their preference is for familiar, tasty food. So why would doctors think restricting choice, banning name-brand products and force-feeding their clientele salads and tap water would be congenial to patient satisfaction or a speedy recovery?

Keep in mind also that the presence of brand-name restaurants such as Tim Hortons or Subway in hospital food courts was a direct response to wide-spread bellyaching about hospital cafeterias. Those old jokes about hospital food exist for a reason. It was once awful. If hospitals have upped their game of late, it’s because they’ve been forced into it by the choice provided by private sector competition. Plus, the leasing income from franchised food locations has been a boon to hospital finances.

Depressingly, this doctor-recommended plan to outlaw cured meats, tasty desserts and sugar in your coffee on hospital grounds will have its biggest effect on some of society’s most vulnerable folks —patients and their loved ones trapped in long-term treatment regimens.

There are few more-disempowering experiences than being enmeshed in institutional health care for long periods of time. Prescribed treatments for cancer, kidney disease or other difficult illnesses often require doctor’s visits and procedures over a period of days or weeks. Sometimes it can go on indefinitely. And during this time those afflicted, together with selfless friends and family members who accompany them, essentially become prisoners of the hospital system. It is a grinding experience that leaves everyone feeling drained and helpless. (This is also why hospital parking fees can be such a heated and perennial issue.)

And sometimes the only way to make this grim routine bearable is to include a treat along the way. A coffee and doughnut in the hospital lobby perhaps. A slice of pizza. Or some other tasty, non-vegetarian means of escape. These small indulgences can become a modest way to re-assert some control over your life. It’s called ‘comfort’ food for a reason.

Now some doctors want to take all this away and impose mandatory “plant-based meals.” With water to drink. It seems a cruelty unbecoming of the health care profession.

Read a letter to the editor responding to this piece.


The end of Tim Hortons on hospital grounds?

  1. Dr. Stevenson should go away (I’m stating what i mean in as non-offensive a manner as i can) and stop being such a politically correct jerk.
    my Dad passed away in hospital last year, and the only “celebration” i had of my birthday was having a piece of cake i bought from the Tim Hortons in the lobby and brought to his room to eat while i sat with him. it gave him one last chance to sing “Happy Birthday” to me and create a lasting memory which would have been impossible had the option to buy a slice of cake not been available. there is far more to life than Veganism, and adults should be allowed to make the sort of aduklt choices that Dr Stevenson has made for himself. he certainly wouldn’t be MY doctor of choice.

    • Jim no one is trying to destroy your ability to celebrate a Birthday with a slice of cake. There will be no “food police” patting down patients families on their way into the building or rooms. But you may want to consider switching to dairy and egg free cake to avoid the harmful effects dairy and eggs have on your health. Take a look into the thousands of Vegan Cake / Dessert options online and you will see you don’t have to sacrifice sweets to avoid harmful dairy / eggs / sugar etc.

      • Steve: the doctor is trying to deny anyone from having any so-called “junk” food in any hospital in the country. who appointed him to decide for me what i should eat? it isn’t a question of food police, it’s a question of the freedom to have multiple choices – including less healthy (for want of a better term) choices – readily available. adults have the right to make choices for themselves, don’t they?
        as for Vegan options – i am completely uninterested. humans are omnivores. in my opinion it makes almost no sense at all to arbitrarily restrict certain things we have eaten throughout the history of the species from our diets just because some person thinks it might be a good idea.

        • Its not just “some person” You’re upset, Im not sure why. If you think its ok for hospitals to serve you up a big mac after your first heart attack, then you’ll not be living a long life or a quality one. Same as in many restaurants, you can’t really walk in with take out from another place, hospitals can kick out outside sources that are a conflict or interest. The interest and priority being HEALTH, not your freedom of choice…people’s freedom of choice is
          what got them there in the first place. Do some research before you cry about something like this. I supposed you would have wanted to see your grandpa smoke one last cigarette too? And you not making the connection of junkfood/eggs, dairy and meat, and dying in a hospital bed is exactly why it needs to happen. People don’t learn anything, if the ones who are supposed to be helping are setting a conflicting example.

          • you really didn’t read my comments did you.
            while you are right in making the comparison between bringing outside food into a restaurant and about the Hospital’s right to restrict what businesses it allows on its premises, it isn’t the Hospitals who are trying to remove the so-called “junk,” it’s a doctor (definitely “some person”) trying to push a vegan agenda on the world who is responsible.
            and, for the record, i was talking about my DAD and myself, not my grandfather. and no mention has ever been made of why Dad was in hospital at the time – nor will there be – so you can’t comment on diet being a cause of a problem that was never mentioned.
            if you’re going to criticize my motives, you should at least pay attention to what i say.
            in any event, this has turned into every other political “debate” i’ve ever seen on the web. people, including me, getting all righteous on those who disagree with the points brought forth by others without really doing any thinking about those points, and whatever validity they might possibly have.
            so i’m going to stop.

  2. Why is Gwyneth Paltrow running our hospitals?

    It is no time to be trendy.

  3. Peter Shawn Taylor Respectfully, your article is a piece of trash sir. You have the gall to question the removal of unhealthy foods that put people in the hospital from the hospital menu! Your lack of intelligence is appalling. Do your research. Look into the nutritional science for yourself. Watch WHAT THE HEALTH on Netflix please. With this attack article on healthy food you now must share responsibility with the food industry for some of the millions of deaths due to food borne diseases going forward. Take your head out of the sand and look at the evidence for the sake of your health, the health of your readers, the well-being of the billions of “food” animals murdered annually as well as the environment that I’m sure you want future generations to be able to enjoy. #GoVegan

    • Carrots…..ptooey!

    • Pro Tip:
      If you add coconut oil when cooking your kale, it slides into the garbage can more easily.

      • LOL Thanks I’ll remember that!

  4. First post here. Googling ‘Tim Hortons hospitals Nova Scotia’ revealed both Nova Scotia and Newfoundland Hospitals’ “Timmies” losing millions. Some arm of the NS provincial government was subsidizing their losses. The stories are a few years old and vague, but it might be nice for taxpayers to know the millions of dollars spent for hospital patrons to have their double-doubles. Those millions should be spent on health care.

    • Hospitals serve 3 meals a day….Timmies are private and extra

      Welcome aboard NSFiddler!

  5. This is a classic case of expanding the scope of the nanny state in order to protect the nanny state. Absurdo reductus infinitum.

    • It isn’t a classic case of anything…except possibly your ninny state

  6. This article angered me on so many levels. The health care system is crumbling under the weight of preventable diseases, and the author is bemoaning the facts that The Man is going to take his sugar away. It’s a hospital! You want to feed your habit? Go off campus. Clearly the author has never sat by, watching people exert their so-called free will to make bad decisions, as they await yet another amputation for poorly controlled diabetes, as 2litre bottles of Pepsi sit at their bedside. While we are at it, stop perpetuating they myth that “healthy” is Akins to eating only cardboard and tofu! There are hospitals that have greenhouses on their grounds to grow their own vegetables, and it’s the patients that tend the gardens. You cannot make the claim to be in a healing profession while reaping the profits made from marketing food that has shown to cause the very diseases you are trying to beat. It’s not prison. It’s common sense, and ethics. “First, do no harm”. Curious at towns the Tim Hortons on Hospital Campuses? Doctors. Let that sink in.

  7. More depressingly than no more Tim’s and junk food in hospitals is this article. patients want to have comfort food? of like the same comfort food that has “forced” then into the hospital bed in the first place. Health care professionals are not there to sooth you. They are there to help reverse the disease, of which nutrition plays an immense role in. Oh, they feel imprisoned? Im pretty sure they went to the hospital of their own free will however desperate it may be, to get HELP. If comfort food is what you think will help them, they are free to LEAVE . Unable to leave??? too damn sick ?? well then suck it up and learn how to not have to go back to the hospital within a few months. Lifestyle change is necessary for all hospital patients. The writer of this article is obviously oblivious to a huge amount of facts regarding the main cause of cancers, heart disease, diabetes, and list goes on. Why on earth would a place that’s supposed to “cure” you, serve the very poisons that have “forced” you through their doors. And then havae the nerve to complain that they have to wait . They have to wait because hospitals are constantly putting on bandaids. They are finally trying to do what they are supposed to do..give people the knowledge and power to cure themselves…for good. Shame on anyone who complains about hospitals wanting to do what’s right and needed.

    • right! lifestyle change is necessary for all hospital patients. even those who have been injured in a car accident? or maybe my lifestyle change should include trying not to get shot by a gang banger? oh wait, that’s all ready part of my lifestyle.
      stop making nonsensical blanket statements. even junk food won’t kill you. it’s the EXCESS of junk food that causes problems. even Vegans have health issues. remember, nobody lives forever – no matter what lifestyle changes they might make.

  8. This is about Tim Horton outlets INSIDE hospitals

    IT IS NOT ABOUT HOSPITAL FOOD…..which is actually much worse!

    Stop trying to control everybody.

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