Food and Behaviour Research

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2 September 2014 - BMJ Blogs - Sally Norton: NHS hospitals—does a spoonful of sugar help the medicine go down?

Dr Sally Norton - Leading weight loss surgeon & consultant and health expert

At last, with health secretary Jeremy Hunt’s announcement of new measures being introduced to improve the standard of food in English hospitals, we may finally see better quality food in our hospitals.

These changes will see hospitals ranked according to the quality and choice of the food they serve. They will hopefully provide some sanity, and not before time, because I was beginning to think I was going mad.

We read every week, in The BMJ and other leading medical journals, of research detailing the perils of sugar and fizzy drinks. We frequently hear laments about the cost to the NHS of the epidemic of obesity and type 2 diabetes, which is threatening to engulf us. And yet, the NHS, which I understood to be an organisation that promotes and supports health (rather than just treating disease), is actually contributing to the problem.

The food we eat is now much more densely packed with fat and sugar than it used to be, so we are passively consuming far more calories than we may realise. The cheapness of the food, and the increasingly huge portions, available wherever we turn, mean that we are actively consuming far more too. In addition, more and more evidence is accruing that sugar is addictive, and that we are in a downward spiral of poor eating owing to the excess of highly processed carbs that make up the vast bulk of our diets.

The government seems unable to take a significant stand against the insidious pervasiveness of the food industry, but the NHS can and should make a stand. If we can’t be the leading light in promoting healthy eating, then who can? Shame on us, for allowing most of our hospitals to play willing hosts to the fast food outlets that are contributing to our health crisis.

How can we have allowed hospitals to get tied up in contracts with these providers—who give away some of our control of good nutrition, a fundamental tenet of health? We are giving tacit agreement that it is OK to drink a coffee that contains nine teaspoons of sugar, or a muffin that contains a quarter of our day’s recommended calories.
Why do we allow these vending machines to spew out coke and chocolate at the very patients and staff who we may well be treating for diabetes, heart disease, and knee arthritis before long—and at increasingly crippling expense too.