In East Tennessee, we demonstrate our joy, sympathy and concern by sharing food. Whether the occasion is a birth, death or hospitalization, people bring their favorite dishes. It’s a way of life here, and it is one of the traditions that makes living in the south so special.
While food can be comforting to people who are in the hospital or recovering at home, many patients are on restricted diets limiting the types and amount of food they can eat. Before bringing any food or drink to a patient or anyone with a chronic medical condition, it is important to check first with the person’s health providers.
For hospital patients, call the nursing station on the patient’s floor to ask if the food or drink you would like to bring is appropriate for the patient you are visiting. The nurse will either approve the item or explain why the item could be harmful. If you are visiting someone who has returned home recently from a hospital stay, ask them, their family members or caregivers to see what kinds of food or drinks you could bring without compromising the patient’s health and recovery.
Eating foods brought in from the outside can set a patient back for days and can be a huge detriment to what the doctors and nurses are trying to do to treat the person’s health problem. For example, I had a heart failure patient whose friends brought him a giant box of barbecued potato chips when they visited the hospital. Fortunately, he knew that the chips were loaded with salt and were not allowed on his sodium-restricted diet. He didn’t eat the chips, but many patients aren’t as aware about what they can and cannot eat. That is why it is so important to check with the health care provider first.
The consequences of bringing food to a person on a restricted diet can be serious. For example, patients being treated for renal failure have protein and potassium restrictions. If they receive a fruit basket as a gift and eat bananas out of the basket, they could die due to the potassium. In addition, giving candy to a diabetic can cause serious health problems, and older patients, especially those with chronic medical conditions, need to be extremely careful about what they eat.
There are some patients who will not eat the food prepared for them at the hospital. In these cases, the family may be asked to bring in food that meets specific dietary guidelines. These approved foods still can create a health risk if they are not prepared, handled and transported properly. Following basic food safety guidelines, including thorough hand washing and keeping prepared items at the proper temperature, will help prevent food-borne illnesses.
Local food vendors also can help protect patient health by not accepting phone orders from patient rooms. While it is safe for employees and staff to have pizza and other food delivered to the hospital, ordering and eating the same items could create serious health problems for a patient on a restricted diet.
Dr. Jane Souther is an interventional cardiologist on the active medical staff of Blount Memorial Hospital and chairs the hospital’s Acute Care Committee.