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Where’s the Food? Late Night Snacking in the Hospital

During the day, many hospitals have robust entree options, beautiful salad bars, and a host of other options. But at night, when the cafeterias and cafes are closed, the only option is often the vending machine.

Visitors and employees working the night shift with the munchies have 4 options:

  1. Go get something from outside of the hospital
  2. Have food delivered
  3. Eat an unhealthy snack from the vending machine
  4. Starve 

For health-conscious visitors or those with food allergies, these late night snacks options are even more of a challenge. 

Why is Late-Night Hunger So Intense, Anyway? 

The circadian rhythm, the internal 24-hour body clock guides tells us when to wake and sleep. It guides our hunger. When that rhythm is disrupted by staying up late, it can wreak havoc on the body's system.

When someone is at the hospital late at night, as a patient, visitor, or employee, their sleeping and waking hours are altered. They may forget about food during the busy daytime hours, but when the hospital quiets down, they may realize they haven't eaten for hours. And they are famished. 

Late-night eating may provide temporary comfort, but if it regularly consists of unhealthy foods that can cause problems, such as gaining weight or increasing your risk for heart disease and cancer

People who eat late typically consume about 12% more calories than those who eat earlier, potentially increasing the risk of weight gain.

Why Do Hospital Visitors and Employees Eat More Calories At Night?

Even when we typically make healthy food decisions by day, this tendency all but shuts down at night, especially if the last meal was hours ago.

Here are 4 reasons why hospital visitors and employees tend to consume more calories at night:

  1. Decision fatigue - People make up to 200 food choices every day, and after hours of saying yes to the salad and no to the cheeseburger, decision fatigue sets in. This makes it challenging to select anything, including what to eat.
  2. Stress - Hunger is only one of the many reasons we eat. But eating based on emotions spikes the calorie intake. Stress eating drives us to eat foods that are high in fat and sugar. Also, eating while stressed can make us eat larger portions.
  3. Tiredness - It's difficult to sleep well in a hospital, whether you are a patient or a visitor, and a lack of sleep can affect your weight. Researchers found that when people are sleep deprived and ate food late in the day, they gained more weight than the control group, which consumed the same number of calories.
  4. Wanting something fast - When the cafeteria is closed, options for healthy food items are limited. Leaving the hospital to find food nearby may not be possible, and the hospital may be located in an area where nearby restaurants are closed or where they don't deliver. That leaves people open to eating anything they can get their hands on. The vending machines are too often stocked with sodas and processed foods. 

This may be a temporary challenge for visitors who are only at the hospital for a short time. For employees on the night shift, having healthy food options at night is one step toward supporting their overall health and boosting their productivity. 

Healthy Eating Round the Clock

If your hospital is open 24/7, then food options should be available 24/7, as well. 

One way to encourage healthy eating — regardless of the time of day — is to ensure that healthy food options are available at all times to everyone in the hospital. That doesn’t mean that hospitals need to keep their cafeterias open all day. But they can look into other options, like 24-hour convenience stores and markets with pre-packaged healthy food. 

Another easy solution is kiosks. 

Here’s how kiosks can be the focal points for food offerings after hours. 

  • They can be located in several convenient spots. These kiosks should be accessible throughout the hospital and in break rooms with signage readily visible so patients, visitors, and staff can easily find the food.
  • They require little to no personnel to maintain, and many automatic options allow visitors can employees to select foods and pay by card. 
  • Kiosks can offer healthy options: salads and soups, fruits and vegetables, sandwiches and wraps, juice and water. 

Late night eating isn't going away. And for many people, that midnight meal is exactly what they need to get through a difficult experience or a long, stressful shift. By providing accessible, fresh, and tasty selections, your hospital can make healthy eating a little easier — day or night. 

Offer snacks even after hours. Learn more about convenience and vending services here.

January 28, 2020

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