The following guest post is by Carolina Branson, PhD, an associate editor with HealthNewsReview.org.
Last week, The Cleveland Clinic announced they were not renewing the lease on the McDonald’s franchise in their food court. While not unprecedented–it’s been reported that seven other hospitals that have done the same since 2009–the move was newsworthy given the prestige of The Clinic.
Several media outlets covered this story with celebratory fanfare. NPR’s lead read, “One of the most prestigious names in health care is taking a stand on food.” Similarly, CBS relied heavily on quotes from a Cleveland Clinic spokesperson about the hospital’s role as a leader in healthcare. “’Hospitals, at least the way we look at it, should be a role model,’ Cleveland Clinic spokeswoman Eileen Sheil said, in explaining the move to rid the premises of fast food as part of a broader effort at preventative medicine. “We know, from studies and research, that chronic disease is closely linked to obesity in the U.S., which is on the rise.’”
To hear the Clinic tell it, this story is something that nearly everyone (except maybe McDonald’s investors) can get behind in good conscience. And yet the health news media have an obligation to look at this framing a bit more carefully. Should the Clinic be given free rein in a news story to tell us what this move means and how it should be interpreted? Seeking out analysis from an independent health expert might have given these stories a different, less rosy angle on the change.
From his standpoint as a physician who specializes in obesity treatment, HealthNewsReview.org contributor Yoni Freedhoff, MD, had a much more skeptical take on the move and its likely impact on the health of Clinic food court patrons. “Removing McDonald’s from a food court full of other hugely calorific and unhealthy no name and brand name fast food is about as laudatory a move as a beleaguered crappy-food-serving restaurant adding in salad and then claiming they’re healthful.” Among the fast food joints still operating at the Clinic are Moe’s Southwest Grill, which Freedhoff points out has nachos on the menu that top 1500 calories—much more than a Big Mac combo with fries and a Coke. Similarly, almost all of Au Bon Pain’s muffins alone clock in at nearly 500 calories or over, and most have nearly 30 grams of sugar or more. CNBC was one media outlet that pointed out this contradiction. “Dr. Barry Popkin, the W.R. Kenan Jr. distinguished professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, says McDonald’s has become a ‘symbol’ and scapegoat for bad eating habits.” The story argues that it’s not necessarily McDonald’s we should blame, given the other poor choices that have been available at the Clinic and at many other large hospitals.
Yet, some members of the HealthNewsReview.org editorial team feel that dumping the chain known for its unhealthy fare is a good first step. Kathleen Fairfield, MD, DrPH, said that while hospitals could do better, it’s an important symbolic gesture. For Fairfield, one of the main problems with McDonald’s is that so much of their food has empty calories. She points to the whole wheat tortillas and black beans offered at Moe’s. “I think people can make good choices at a place like that (Moe’s). McDonald’s has kind of lost the trust of medical people. I see very few good choices. I know people can make bad choices anywhere, you can eat too much dessert, too big portions, even of healthy food. If medical centers predominantly have restaurants that encourage healthier choices for people, that would be a step in the right direction.”
So, where does that leave us? McDonald’s surely has no place in a hospital cafeteria, but neither do 1500-calorie nachos. In addition to posting nutritional content for hospital restaurants in a highly visible place, Freedhoff urges hospitals to think more creatively about ways to introduce healthy alternatives, such as farm produce-to-hospital programs that are already running in Texas, Vermont, Iowa, and North Carolina. “While the world may well provide ample opportunity to dive into fast food, hospitals of all places, should not,” Freedhoff says. “We need to see leadership from institutions like Cleveland Clinic who can in turn ensure that the offerings provided to their patients and staff are healthful ones. Clearly we need to start turning this cruise ship around, and who better than hospitals to grab that wheel?”