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Hospitals screen menus for patients; some favorites off-limits

SCHENECTADY, N.Y. (AP) _ Two days after a heart attack, Tom LaFountain's mouth was watering at the thought of a Philly cheese steak.

But when he called the hospital kitchen to order the greasy delight, the kitchen staff told him it was off-limits. He could forget about bacon or sausage in the morning, too.

``Well, I tried,'' said 48-year-old LaFountain, who settled for a baked lemon crumb cod instead.

Protecting the patient from himself is part of a tailor-made program that seems to be gaining popularity as hospitals look for more efficient ways to meet the dietary needs of their patients.

At Ellis Hospital in Schenectady, a computer program keeps a running tally on how much fat, sodium and calories each patient orders throughout the day.

``If the patient tries to order something that's off-limits, we can educate them on a choice that might be more appropriate,'' said Joe Salvione, director of food and nutrition at the hospital.

Christine Gerbstadt, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, said hospital dietitians routinely oversee menus and work to educate patients on the best food choices.

But the new computerized systems allow hospitals to more closely monitor and restrict what patients are eating and free up doctors' time, said Rick Wade, spokesman for the American Hospital Association.

While the hospital group doesn't track how many of its more than 4,800 members are using such systems, it is likely that many are updating their kitchens with similar programs, Wade said.

Maryland-based food service company Sodexho Inc. estimates it now supplies 1,400 U.S. hospitals with programs that allow doctors to monitor patients' nutritional intake. Among the company's largest customers are Yale-New Haven Medical Center in Connecticut, Children's Medical Center of Dallas and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

Despite progress toward healthier meal monitoring, a study in February by the Center for Science in the Public Interest found 18 of the country's top hospitals are serving foods prepared with partially hydrogenated oil, which contains artery-clogging trans fats. The center analyzed French fries from cafeterias serving visitors and employees.

Since it is unlikely hospitals have separate kitchens, that food is probably reflective of food served to patients as well, experts say.

But at Ellis Hospital, the computer screen in the kitchen nixes certain choices depending on each patient's health problems. Salty traps like bacon are blacked out for patients on a low-sodium diet. Likewise, patients with wheat or egg allergies are protected from dishes containing those ingredients.

On the flip side, the system highlights low-fiber diets for patients whose gastrointestinal systems may be recovering from surgery.

The cook-to-order program also gives patients more menu options, allowing them to order from a menu as though they were at a restaurant. Patients at Ellis can find everything from specialty deli sandwiches to pasta and barbecue on the cook-to-order menu.

It's a turnaround from past experiences dining at hospitals, said John Veivia, an 81-year-old Guilderland resident.

``I'm a diabetic, so I'm usually limited in what I can eat,'' said Veivia, who was hospitalized after a fainting spell.

Just three years ago, the hospital was still on the meal-tray system more commonly associated with hospitals. ``It used to be a daily menu of meatloaf, meatloaf, meatloaf,'' said Donna Evans, spokeswoman for the hospital.

Hospitals are an optimal place to teach people how to eat right _ and programs that monitor patients nutrition also help patients understand their needs better.

For Veivia, the diabetic-friendly meals were marked with an asterisk on the menu.

And although LaFountain was denied a philly cheese steak, he said the kitchen staff guided him on what type of meals would be best for him _ and to his surprise, he ended up enjoying them.

``I had the preconceived notion that it would be institutionalized turkey and mashed potatoes,'' he said.
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