Despite having health as their core agenda, hospitals and other health services have ironically long served up the very foods and drinks that are responsible for, or contribute to, many chronic diseases. Even with guidelines in place, compliance has been poor.
Recently, the Queensland government upped the ante by banning junk food and sugary drinks. Now the Victorian government is taking a stand.
Their Healthy choices: policy directives and guidelines for health services requires all in-house hospital food outlets, vending machines, staff event catering and patient/resident food and menus to improve the availability of healthier food and drink options – and where possible, source items locally.
Nutritious food for healthy aging
The policy, published on 1 August 2021, followed an extensive review of food services in public hospitals and residential aged care facilities, including the nutritional value, quality and origin of foods served, and consultation with key stakeholders.
It recognises the contribution of poor quality food to burgeoning chronic diseases such as diabetes, cancers, obesity and even some mental health disorders. In achieving healthier options, it also acknowledges the importance of taste, variety and enjoyment of food and its role in enhancing quality of life.
“Nutritious food supports healthy ageing and is essential for optimal patient treatment and recovery. Food also provides a sense of wellbeing and emotional comfort and is an important expression of cultural identity.”
Importantly, it addressed the widespread issue of malnutrition, “a common, preventable hospital-acquired complication” that is estimated to impact one in three older adults.
No more sugary drinks
Broadly, the policy is based on the existing Healthy choices: food and drink classification guide and policy guidelines for hospitals and health services, with food and drinks classified as green, amber and red, purportedly according to their degree of healthiness.
As an exception, in a bold and long overdue move, the new policy bans sugary drinks in the red food category, and states that no more than 20% of drinks with artificial sweeteners, in the amber category can be sold.
The guidelines require at least half of food available or displayed to be classified as green, and no more than 20% as red, and drinks must include at least half green items. Red drink and food items must not be promoted or advertised, while material is available to promote healthy choices along with a free Healthy Eating Advisory Service to assist organisations.
The same principles apply to catering provided to staff and events, and health services are encouraged to provide free drinking water.
The Healthy Choices framework for bolstering the availability and promotion of healthier foods and drinks extends to sport and recreation centres, workplaces and parks. How well it will be taken up and monitored remains to be seen.