Vegetarians in the Hospital
How to Make the Most of Your Stay with the Nutrition You Need
By Megan Salazar, VRG Dietetic Intern
Whether you have scheduled surgery or find yourself in an ambulance because of an accident or sudden illness, the last thought on your mind may be what you are going to eat while you are in the hospital. As a vegetarian or vegan, it can be tricky to manage your diet and preferences if you are not aware of the options. Fortunately, there is a variety of ways in which you can prepare to meet your dietary needs during a planned hospital stay or during an emergency.
BEFORE SCHEDULED HOSPITAL STAYS
If you have scheduled a hospital visit or just want to be familiar with your options in case of a future event, you can prepare for your stay in the following ways:
Learn about area hospitals and what they offer for vegetarian and vegan diets. Call your local hospital and request to speak with the dietary or food service department. Ask them if they have a special menu or offer items for a vegetarian diet. If you prefer certain brands, ask if they have those accessible or if they would be able to get them for you during your hospital stay. If they are unable to tell you what they have available, ask to speak with a dietitian.
Have light meals and snacks ready. Items such as dried fruit, nuts, snack bars, canned soups, and crackers will be handy if you get hungry in between meals. If you miss a hot meal, having items that provide a few more calories on hand can help you feel satisfied. However, a dietitian may need to approve items if you are on a therapeutic diet or cannot eat before surgery.
Write out instructions. Carry a card of your pertinent medical information, allergies, and food preferences. This will be helpful whether you need to provide hospital staff members with guidance or in case of an emergency.
Know the restaurants around the hospital that serve vegetarian or vegan meals to go.Check out The Vegetarian Resource Group’s list of restaurants by area at vrg.org/restaurant/index.php/.
DURING EMERGENCY HOSPITAL VISITS
Hospital visits cannot always be predicted, and there may be times when your ability to plan ahead is limited. Being unprepared does not mean that a hospital stay will be a disaster, though. Most hospitals carry a variety of foods that can be used to make a delicious vegetarian or vegan meal at a moment’s notice. Items like rice and beans, along with vegetables, fruits, and nuts, can be combined to satisfy your dietary needs. Don’t be afraid to request foods that are not on the menu, but be aware that any special items will need the dietitian’s approval if you are on a therapeutic diet. Family members and friends can also help the patient’s experience by knowing what foods they can bring in from nearby grocery stores or favorite restaurants. Anyone who would like to bring in meals should discuss available options with the dietitian to be sure the foods are acceptable for the patient’s prescribed diet.
AFTER ARRIVING AT THE HOSPITAL
When checking into the hospital, the screening form that you fill out at admissions will usually have a section to indicate dietary preferences or concerns. The doctor will be able to note your special needs in the diet order, and the diet order lets the kitchen and food service staff know what is acceptable for you to eat. If the doctor does not indicate your preferences, the nurses and other staff members will be able to advocate for you. Ask them to contact the dietitian to make sure your needs are met. If you receive unacceptable foods, voice your concerns immediately so the food service staff can correct them. If the food service staff doesn’t address the issue, the nurses can contact the dietitian to reconcile any problems.
Every hospital differs in how they deliver food to their patients. Some hospitals have a room service option that allows you to be in contact with a dietetic technician to guide you through the menu. The diet tech will be able to let you know what other foods they have that may not be on the menu. Other hospitals may bring you a standard tray of food based on your diet order, but items can be added to this tray at your request.
If you are unable to eat by mouth and have to use a feeding tube, you will need to be given a special formula designed to be fed through the tube. You can be comfortable knowing that most formulas are vegetarian. Many formulas are based on casein (a protein from cow’s milk). Some soy-based formulas contain ingredients that are not derived from animals with the exception of vitamin D, which may be derived from sheep’s wool. If you are uncomfortable with this, be sure to discuss alternative options with the doctor and the dietitian. Treatments like this are usually temporary and can help you transition back to a normal diet.
Your worries about food can be eased by speaking with the doctor and dietitian candidly about any dietary concerns. Most hospitals will work with your needs and will usually go the extra mile to make sure you are fed the proper foods, whether because of a preference or an allergy. Your health and comfort are usually the priority of all hospital staff, especially when it comes to nutrition.
The contents of this article and our other publications, including Vegetarian Journal, are not intended to provide personal medical advice. Medical advice should be obtained from a qualified health professional.
Megan Salazar wrote this article during a dietetic internship with The Vegetarian Resource Group.