Are Hospitals Making Us Sick? The Clear Liquid Diet

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Are Hospitals Making Us Sick: The Clear Liquid Diet | Real Food RN
I work in a hospital. This does not mean that I think everything that goes on in the hospital is health promoting. Not at all! Now don’t get me wrong, there is definitely a place for modern medicine with surgical intervention and emergency care, but I truly feel that we have missed the boat when it comes to prevention and disease management. Most often I see symptomatic management without considering the source of the illness. Band-aid medicine. It really frustrates me, and is what led me to go back to school for holistic nutrition. You can read more about my education HERE. I feel we are doing the general public a great disservice by not focusing on prevention. We are also doing a great disservice with the kind of care that is being given in the hospital. I would like to start with a particularly sore subject for me: hospital food.

Let’s begin with the basics of the hospital meal plans: the “Clear Liquid Diet

What is it? By definition: “A clear liquid diet is made up of only clear fluids and foods that turn to clear fluids when they are at room temperature. It includes things like clear broth, tea, cranberry juice, Jell-O, and Popsicles. This diet is easier to digest than other foods. It still gives you the important fluids, salts, and minerals that you need for energy. Eating only a clear liquid diet gives you enough nutrition for 3 to 4 days. It is safe for people with diabetes, but only for a short time when they are followed closely by their doctor.” (source)

What is included in the clear liquid diet?

You can have the following clear liquids:

  • Plain water
  • Fruit juices without pulp, such as grape juice, filtered apple juice, and cranberry juice
  • Soup broth (bouillon or consommé)
  • Clear sodas, such as ginger ale and Sprite
  • Gelatin (Jell-O)
  • Popsicles that do not have bits of fruit or fruit pulp in them
  • Tea or coffee with no cream or milk added
  • Sports drinks

What is the purpose of the clear liquid diet?

It’s a diet that requires very little effort from the digestive system. It is the first diet prescribed in the transition back to food, especially for someone who has had a gastrointestinal surgery or procedure. General anesthesia and narcotic pain medications can slow down the functioning of the bowels and it is best to introduce foods that are very basic and easy to digest. The reason why the liquids need to be clear are because dairy can create mucus in the digestive tract, which can lead to vomiting.

Now let’s take a closer look at the clear liquid diet…

1) Fruit Juice: the most common juices to chose from are: apple, orange, cranberry, and prune. Many of them also contain high-fructose corn syrup in their ingredient list and most are only about 10% juice — from concentrate.

2) Soup Broth: in the hospital setting we typically serve a broth that comes as a powder, from a small packet.

  • Here is the ingredient list for that broth: Salt, Monosodium Glutamate, Partially Hydrogenated Cottonseed Oil, Chicken Fat, Cornstarch, Dried Chicken Meat, Yeast Extract, Dried Vegetables (Onion, Parsley), Sugar, Turmeric, Caramel Color, Spice, Disodium Inosinate & Disodium Guanylate, Tartaric Acid, and Citric Acid. (source)

3) Clear Sodas: I don’t think this needs much explanation, but soda is basically sugar water. Unless you get the diet flavor, then they are filled with artificial chemical flavorings.

4) Gelatin: what flavor would you like: red, green, orange or purple? No folks, you are not eating food — you are eating colors.

Again, here are the ingredients:  

  • Strawberry Jello: Sugar, Gelatin, Adipic Acid (for Tartness), Contains Less than 2% of  Artificial Flavoe, Disodium Phosphate and Sodium Citrate (Control Acidity), Fumaric Acid (for Tartness), Red 40.
  • Sugar-free strawberry jello: : Gelatin, Adipic Acid (for Tartness), Disodium Phosphate (Controls Acidity), Maltodextrin from Corn), Fumaric Acid (for Tartness), Aspartame (Sweetener), Contains Less than 2% of Artificial Flavor, Acesulfame Potassium (Sweetener), Salt, Red 40, Phenylketonurics (contains Phenylalanine). (source)

5) Popsicles: the popsicles allowed on the clear liquid diet cannot have fruit chunks or pieces in them. This means they are most often made from juice and sugar. But sadly, I have seen very few that actually contain real juice. The typical popsicle that I have handed out in the hospital does not have any real food ingredients at all!

  • Here is what they often contain: Water, Orange Juice (from Concentrate), Sugar, Carrot Juice, Corn Syrup, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Apple Juice (from Concentrate), Pear Juice (from Concentrate), Strawberry Juice (from Concentrate), Calcium Lactate Gluconate, Natural Flavors and Artificial Flavors, Guar Gum, Locust Bean Gum, Beet Juice Concentrate, Ascorbic Acid, Citric Acid, Malic Acid, Yellow 6, Red 40, Vitamin E Acetate. (source)

6) Tea or Coffee: I have yet to see an organic, fair trade coffee served in a hospital. This means the coffee typically served is loaded with pesticides, possibly mold, and is also probably made with chlorinated hospital water. Tea can also be full of pesticides, and a recent article explains that even the tea bags themselves can be full of junk!

7) Sports Drinks: basically flavored water with some electrolyte enhancement. They are often given fancy names such as “Glacier Freeze” and “Fierce Grape” but the flavors come from chemicals, not juice.

  • Here the basic ingredients: water, sugar, dextrose, citric acid, natural and artificial flavors, salt, sodium citrate, monopotassium phosphate, gum arabic, color, ester gum, brominated vegetable oil (BVO).

Why are these ingredients bad? Let’s go over some of the worst offenders listed above:

  • High-fructose Corn Syrup: very hard on your body, and is now implicated in causing non-alcoholic fatty liver disease! Even in children!!
  • Monosodium Glutamate: MSG is an excitotoxin, which means it overexcites your [brain] cells to the point of damage or death, causing brain damage to varying degrees — and potentially even triggering or worsening learning disabilities, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease and more. (source)
  • Partially Hydrogenated Cottonseed Oil: during the hydrogenation process this becomes a trans fat. Trans fats are actually toxic substances for our cell membranes. When our cells contain an overabundance of trans fats, the cells become leaky and distorted. Without our cells intact, our bodies become diseased. What’s more, cottonseed oil may contain natural toxins and probably has unacceptably high levels of pesticide residues. Cotton is not classified as a food crop, and farmers use many agrichemicals when growing it. (source)
  • Adipic Acid: Almost 90 percent of adipic acid produced is used in the production of nylon 66. The nylon, which has a protein-like structure, is further processed into fibers for applications in carpeting, automobile tire cord, and clothing. Adipic acid is also used to manufacture plasticizers and lubricant components.Food grade adipic acid is used as a gelling aid, an acidulant, and as a leavening and buffering agent. (source)….and why is this in our food?
  • Aspartame: Dr. Mercola calls aspartame by far the most dangerous substance added to most foods today. Aspartame accounts for over 75 percent of the adverse reactions to food additives reported to the FDA. Many of these reactions are very serious, including seizures and death. Too much in the brain kills certain neurons by allowing the influx of too much calcium into the cells. This influx triggers excessive amounts of free radicals, which kill the cells. (source)
  • Red 40This is the most-widely used and consumed dye. It may accelerate the appearance of immune system tumors in mice. It also causes hypersensitivity (allergy-like) reactions in some consumers and might trigger hyperactivity in children. (source)
  • Brominated Vegetable Oil (BVO): BVO was first patented by chemical companies as a flame retardant. The chemical is banned in food throughout Europe and Japan.(source) It is an endocrine disruptor and also competes with receptor sites for iodine in the body, which can lead to thyroid problems. It recently came to light how bad this additive is and now, thankfully, many companies are removing it from our food supply. Read THIS ARTICLE on the bad health effects associated with BVO and what is being done right now.

What can we do about this?

Well, right now if you want to do something immediately then have your family bring food in from home. Boycott the hospital food and tell them you do not want to eat that garbage. On a bigger level we can collectively boycott this food and suggest healthier alternatives. Write letters to hospital representatives, politicians, or anyone who has a hand in the hospital food production. Share this post….PLEASE!

Here are a few alternatives (aka Real Food) that your family can make up and bring for you:

1) Fruit Juice: just bring the real stuff, but it must be pulp free. Get a juicer (like this) and juice up a ton of fruits and vegetables. Not only will you NOT be drinking chemicals and coloring, but you will be getting boat-loads of nutrition! All of the micro-nutrients, vitamins, and minerals in that juice will help your body heal, not hinder the process. Bottoms up!

2) Soup Broth: Well, this one is easy for me because I make it every week: Bone Broth. Nuff said. This stuff is like the Mecca for healing! It costs pennies to make and does everything from healing your gut, to giving your body the minerals (in the correct proportions) that it really needs to heal. Read THIS ARTICLE on the benefits of bone broth. Go get a crock pot and cook some up! Here are some recipes: 

3) Clear Sodas: make up some delicious and nutritious fermented beverages (no, not beer or wine, silly goose!). These beverages contain tons of probiotics that are essential to healing, and are particularly important if you are on any antibiotics (which just about every post-operative patient is!). Try kombucha, water kefir, or homemade sodas. Just make sure you strain them before drinking. Naturally fermented beverages can contain yeast strands. You can find all of these in the refrigerated section at your local health food store, but it is much cheaper to make them at home. Here are some recipes: 

4) Gelatin: gelatin itself (the powder) has the same health benefits as bone broth. Gut healing, tissue restoring, and is also full of protein. You just need to buy the right kind (like this). Then you take this awesome gelatin and turn it into some delicious homemade jello! Again, if you use fruit juice in the recipes, make sure you either use pulp-free, or strain the juice first. Also, omit the fruit in the recipes. Here are some recipes: 

5) Popsicles: make your own from fresh juice, coconut water, or kombucha. Freeze these in molds (like these) and voila — healthy popsicles!

6) Tea or coffee: stick to organic, fair-trade coffee. For tea, use organic loose leaf tea if you can. Otherwise, there are a ton of organic teas in the market (check here)

7) Sports Drinks: my first line of defense here is coconut water. It’s natures Gatorade! Full of hydration, vitamins, and minerals! Plus, it’s all natural! Right off the tree to your lips. You can find it in your local health food store, or you can also find it HERE. Make sure you are getting the kind that is pulp-free, and also make sure that you are not buying coconut milk (that is not allowed on a clear liquid diet). Here are some other recipes:

Well, what do you think? Does this seem easy enough to you? Great! Together we can change the face of our modern medical model, one popsicle at a time! If you want to know more about WHY the above mentioned food ingredients (in the hospital food) are bad for you, I encourage you to check out Food Babe. This lady is taking the food industry by storm and is winning! Please support her efforts too. Vote with your dollar, if we don’t buy or eat the junk that the food industry sells then they will be forced to change their ways. They will have to make food that people will buy. Good food. Real Food.

I would love to hear your comments on this topic. Please feel free to comment below. 

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Are Hospitals Making Us Sick: The Clear Liquid Diet | Real Food RN


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37 Replies to “Are Hospitals Making Us Sick? The Clear Liquid Diet”

  1. My husband (a DC) commented that hospital food – both for patients and visitors – is designed to give you diabetes. When I was in for five days after giving birth, every meal and snack had cakey muffins and pudding. The snacks would include a little note explaining that, after giving birth, you need certain nutrients. One note talked about regulating blood sugar and was accompanied by a muffin. In addition to my poor nutrition, my baby had to go to the NICU and my nurses wouldn’t let me go to him while NICU was being told that I had gone home. So instead of starting life with my milk, my son’s first nourishment for 12+ hours was sugar water. Luckily he hasn’t shown any lasting effects from that debacle. Hospitals should also have donor milk on hand!

  2. Kate, my own mother was an RN, with many of your same viewpoints. After many years of feeling like she wasn't making a difference in the hospital setting, and of course running into brick walls when suggesting any kind of change be made, she decided to train to become a Naturopathic Physician. She went on to start her own highly succesful Health Center and helped thousands of people become well (pre-internet, so it may have been tens of thousands with that) I'm sure you have seen on your blog that there is a definite interest from people for these services….I also see that you are a very knowledgeable person in the natural health care area. Were you thinking of training as a Naturopath? I thought I remembered you were looking for a school….ANYWAY, I would highly encourage you to try going that route! It is so satisfying to work with people who have seen many medical doctors and within months of trying natural methods, they are able to function and have their lives back again. Great article, I hope you are able to make a difference where you are, that is very important as well!

  3. Kate I worked as a Nutrition Aid and then a Cook in hospital/nursing home for years. I completely agree with you. The nutrition is horrible especially for long term patients who already have nutritional issues. It's just sad. And we had TWO nutritionists on staff.

    Really, it is the same stuff we are feeding kids in schools. It's all prepackaged, frozen, reconstituted. Blech. The weird thing is that as a cook, we also did caterings to earn our hospital extra money (and we could work overtime for attending the caterings). Our catering clients got fresh food all from the local market. It was infinitely better than anything we ever served to patients.

  4. Yes! I'm one of those Dietitians in Long Term Care and trust me it's not that we don't want the change. I'm a REAL FOOD dietitian and I would give anything to see the food change. Our hands are tied though literally. I have recently implemented a gluten free menu that hopefully will help get rid of at least some of the processed stuff.

  5. great post. i often wonder how they can give us this terrible crap in the hospital. my parents always bring me food from home and it’s the things you described- homemade gelatin, bone broth, kombucha, suja juice, and eventually when i’m on soft foods, yogurt, kefir, whey protein, chicken/soft veggies in broth, eggs, coconut oil/butter, and pureed fruits.

  6. Interesting perspective on the clear liquid diet – you know as well as I do from working in a hospital that they’re all about the bottom line and since cheap sodas, jello, popsicles, and juice don’t cost much it’s easy to see why they’re served. Nutrition is pretty much the most archaic thing in a hospital as it’s years behind. You know what’s even worse than a clear liquid diet….the diabetic diets served to our diabetic patients. Pretty sure they shouldn’t be having pancakes for breakfast….which is an option for our diabetic diets.

  7. Thanks Jenny, yes I do plan to go back to school. Money and time permitting, I would LOVE to go back for my Naturopath and Functional Medicine. I'm sort of obsessed with it 🙂

  8. Oh my yes. My mother in law just spent the past 4 months in the hospital and nursing home and although she has received excellent care the food stinks. Your article is so right on and just one example. As a diabetic she has been fed so many carbs it just sickens me.

  9. I agree! Few times I was admitted to the hospital and stayed few days, I was appalled that they gave me pork chops, high fat and sugar foods, and other undesirable foods. In Japan and Korea they start you off with rice porridge type of food (foods you can easily digest) and gradually start giving you solid food. Hospitals give you soup filled with herbs to assist in the healing process.

  10. I agree with you 100%! Try and tell my family that though. My dad has been in and out of the hospital for quite some time now. I took a cooler with some freshly made carrot/apple juice, coconut water, homemade bone broth and organic yogurt for him to help give him some nutrition. I basically had it thrown back in my face by the rest of the family. My brother asked why I brought that stuff in and what is broth going to do for him anyway, while they fed him McDonald's junk and sweets.

    1. Shelley, you are a rockstar for bringing in all of that goodness! Sadly, most people have no idea why these foods are healing 🙁 Just keep on trying!

  11. Shelley God Bless you for trying..I don't understand your families reaction..not that mine would be any better..except my Mom.and Don..If I ever end up in a hospital I would be forever grateful if you brought me any thing you made…Praying for your Dad…

  12. One more thing I hadn’t yet considered about this new experience of having a baby for the first time! Hospital food. So thank you for bringing it to my attention now so I can be thinking about it ahead of time.
    Because our insurance won’t cover the local natural Birthing Center we will have to deliver in a hospital this October.
    I’m really still quite clueless on so much of this pregnancy/delivery journey; especially from a natural/real food/holistic point of view. (Though I’m studying up as much as I can.)

    Can you give me any insight on how much I would be expected to consume food/drink during & after labor, during my time in the hospital? As far as I know I’m low-risk, and will do whatever I can to have a natural birth. But it would be great to have some professional insight from you on what to expect on this subject, so I can plan accordingly, bring the right stuff, and inform the right people of any pertinent details ahead of time.

    Thanks so much for your great service, in sharing this invaluable information with us.

  13. PS- Do you have a specific popsicle mold you recommend from that linked Amazon list? Even the BPA-free ones seem to be made in China…should I be concerned about that, or do you know any made elsewhere? Thank you again.

  14. One more question-
    How bad is the stuff they’re supposed to make you drink for the Gestational Diabetes Glucose test (i.e. do you know what’s in it?)?
    And if it’s as bad as I suspect, is that something I have to agree to during one of my prenatal tests (between 24-28weeks)? Is it necessary? If so, are there any suggestions on how to do it differently or via a more ‘clean’ drink option for the testing?
    Thank you so much for any help!

    1. Hey Krystal, so sorry for taking so long getting back to you! Glad you are now going to be prepared for the hospital! I always bring coconut water, kombucha, and healthy snacks. Think calorie dense foods like Lara bars, nuts, jerky, coconut butter, coconut oil. You will need fuel without being full! I brought three cans of coconut water in my bag both times and 2 bottles of kombucha. It really depends on how you feel. I needed more with my first because I was so dehydrated from throwing up and needed liquid! Just pack a bunch, best to have extra! You could make up some of my healthy gummies and bring a bag of them too.

      I have a popsicle mold that I bought from a local company, silicon mold. But, I am going to buy these next because they are totally awesome!:

      The glucose test is something I plan to take my own spin on. I am showing up to my appointment with 28 jelly beans, a few bananas, and a print off of this article:

      Good luck, let me know if you have any more questions!

  15. I have worked in hospitals for 34 years and I absolutely agree. Someone in the Pass The Buck Department(Dietary) gives carbonated beverages to Stage 4 COPD patient then we are called STAT at every meal time to a patient in dire straits. A little patient education, from physicians to dieticians would be so helpful for everybody!

  16. Amen, Sister! We talk about this all the time at work. Now…what are we going to DO about it!?!

  17. The clear liquid diet was always my nightmare after c-sections. I just had major surgery AND a baby and they would not give me food. UGH! Then the stuff they give you is just insulting. I just had a surgical procedure done and it was probably not wise but once I was awake and feeling like eating I had fruit salad, eggs, and bacon. I felt so good compared to how I felt after c-sections when they denied me real nourishment. They said to make sure I could hold down a liquid diet first. Well I drank a bunch of water and it stayed down so I ate the REAL food. Never has an issue. I really think it helped me feel better and got me on my feet again faster than if I spent two days on liquid garbage.

  18. My father was recently in the hospital and just a few hours into his stay he said that he really wanted water kefir! This is despite not really getting into it before that boggles my mind that anyone gets better eating that "food".

    1. Sure, they are real food and would be great pre-procedure. I do agree that if its prior to a colonoscopy stick to liquids only. If your gallbladder is acting up then low fat too, maybe less broth.

  19. It depends on what type of procedure that is being done. If it is something that needs to clean you out, like before a colonoscopy that would be different I think. If they just said to eat a liquid diet, then yes, the bone broth, fresh juice, coconut water, homemade popsicles and jello (made with fruit juice and grass-fed gelatin like Great Lakes brand) would be good I would think.

  20. For family on clear liquid diets, I make gels with coconut water and Great Lakes gelatin, which is from grass-fed beef, as well as from other good quality fruit juices. Coconut water is an ideal liquid, and solidified is not overly sweet and tastes almost like “real food”. Bone broth is easy to make in a pressure cooker, and takes an hour to extract lots of gelatin (and smells better than making it the long way in a crock pot). Some bone broths come out stiff enough that they can be cut and eaten like jello.

    For those who need actual liquids, Great Lakes makes a collagen powder that dissolves completely and doesn’t gel. I don’t get anything from them for the recommendation, I was just so danged GLAD to find a company making decent quality gelatin with less toxic source animals.

    I also hate to see people who are NOT diagnosed with salt-dependent high blood pressure shorting themselves on salt after a surgery. You NEED salt to build blood. Need. I love celtic sea salt, any good quality unrefined salt will have more trace minerals than the refined stuff.

  21. I a hospital foodservice nutritionist. My facility serves only 100% fruit juice. We also have organic, fair trade tea bags available but patients must request them. If a patient just says “tea,” she gets a Lipton tea bag. A lot of the “better for you” products we have on hand must specifically requested by the patient. Otherwise, the patient gets the standard processed product because it saves the hospital money.

    Lesson: If you want something, ask and be specific.

  22. So glad to find your site. The irony of the effort to repair a heart followed with the questionable meal plans makes me wonder.

  23. I am so glad I found this post and I will be checking out the rest of your website. I am going to be having surgery in two weeks for an umbilical hernia and of course they recommend a clear liquid diet after. I started doing some research and realized that the “food” recommended is all sugar (and as you state, chemicals as well). When my dad was in the hospital for his appendix, I couldn’t believe the junk they were serving him. I’m looking forward to using your advice in this post. Thank you!

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