October 25th, 2005

Pediatric Hospitals Hooked on Junk-Food Profits

By Andre Picard
Toronto Globe and Mail

A "plethora of unwholesome food" is being served up in pediatric hospitals across North America, according to new research.

About one in four hospitals for children has fast-food outlets on site, most have vending machines loaded with salty and sugary treats, and almost all facilities’ cafeterias sell chocolate, chips, burgers, fries and meat pizza.

Worse yet, the majority of institutions rely on profits from the sale of junk food to fund research and programs. "Economic reliance on this revenue may be the motivating force" behind the proliferation of unwholesome food outlets in North American children’s hospitals, dietician Christine McDonald told the Canadian Cardiovascular Congress in Montreal.

Her research also showed that the more commercial outlets there were at a children’s hospital, the less likely it was to have health-promotion programs like an obesity clinic and a staff exercise program.

To conduct the research, Ms. McDonald and a team at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto contacted all 116 pediatric hospitals in the United States and Canada. A total of 101 participated in the survey, including all 12 pediatric hospitals in Canada.

The study found that 82 per cent of hospitals have "non-cafeteria food outlets," including 24 per cent who have fast-food outlets like McDonald’s in the hospital.

Dr. Brian McCrindle, director of the pediatric lipid disorders clinic at Sick Kids and a co-author of the study, said that record is shameful.

"It’s no longer appropriate to call yourself an institution dedicated to health when your nutritional environment is suboptimal," he said in an interview. "Pediatric hospitals can do better and should do better."

The study grew out of the ongoing debate at Sick Kids about the appropriateness of having fast-food outlets on site.

The pediatric hospital has a Burger King, Tim Hortons, Mr. Sub and Starbucks on the premises, along with a Soup It Up, Bento Sushi, a Shoppers Drug Mart (which sells pop, chips and candy) and a cafeteria.

Hospital administrators argue that the hospital offers a full range of food choices and that people can eat a variety of foods (including fast food and junk food) in moderation and still be healthy.

But Dr. McCrindle rejected that as a rationalization: "Having this stuff in a children’s hospital every day sends a message that it’s okay to eat it every day."

The veteran cardiologist said he sees children suffering from obesity, diabetes and heart problems who come in to their appointments wearing Burger King paper crowns and carrying boxes of Timbits, and that is disheartening.

Dr. McCrindle said he hopes the research will spark debate within hospitals and in public policy circles, similar to the discussion that has occurred around the quality of food available in public schools. "If they ban junk food in schools, why not in pediatric hospitals?" he asked.

Dr. Beth Abramson, a cardiologist and spokeswoman for the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, said the new data is troubling, particularly at a time when there is an epidemic of childhood obesity.

"Children’s hospitals should be offering heart-healthy and nourishing meals and snacks to their patients instead of presenting youngsters with unhealthy food choices," she said.


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