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YNHH expands plant-based menu options to help improve patient outcomes

For the past several years, patient menus at Yale New Haven Hospital have been undergoing an evolution, with more plant-based options available. This past spring, efforts to introduce additional tasty dishes featuring fruits, vegetables, legumes and healthy grains really took off, and with good reason.

“Smoking is no longer the number one risk factor for premature death – it’s an unhealthy diet,” said Eric Brandt, MD, a cardiologist and lipidologist at YNHH and Yale School of Medicine. “The third major cause of morbidities is diet-related diseases.”

Dr. Brandt and Laura Swanson, a clinical dietitian with Food and Nutrition, have been leading the effort to increase plant-based options. Last year, with support from hospital leaders, they brought together a team of physicians; staff from different departments, including Food and Nutrition and Patient Experience; and representatives from Morrison Healthcare, YNHH’s food services vendor.

The team worked to update menu items and specials, and Morrison chefs scrutinized the ingredients in existing recipes to find healthier options, Swanson said. Patient menus now include items such as homemade tomato soup, veggie burritos, Indian Vindaloo dishes, fruit for dessert and new breads. These options will have a “heart-healthy” symbol beside them on menus, making it easier for patients to identify them.

“Previously, we offered some plant-based options on patient menus and in the cafeterias, but working with a team has brought us to a different level,” Swanson said. “It’s been great to have the collaboration between our culinary and clinical experts.”

In addition to supporting patients’ recovery and giving them more healthy eating options, adding plant-based items to menus can help clinicians educate patients about the connection between diet and health. Dr. Brandt has conducted extensive research in this area – specifically on how nutrition policies can affect populations’ outcomes.

“Dietary research strongly supports that populations of people who eat fewer high-fat, processed meats, simple sugars and fried foods and more high-quality, plant-based foods and plant proteins have better health outcomes,” he said. “Incidences of diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and cardiovascular diseases decline.”

Before, “I was seeing a lack of cohesion in terms of the food options we were providing inpatients and what healthcare providers were recommending,” Dr. Brandt added. “We can tell patients all the right things to eat, but when there is limited ability to provide those foods, it’s hard for us to translate our advice into examples patients can follow when they leave the hospital.”