The Dangers of Prepackaged Food in Nursing
Marijke Durning | Scrubs Magazine
February 16, 2011
They snuck up on us. They—the prepackaged foods—entered our stores and our homes slowly at first…and before we knew it, they tried to take over. Those shiny packages whispered, “Resistance is futile. We’re quick, we’re easy, we’re what you want….”
Starting as frozen TV dinners in the 1950s—those plastic-tasting foods in foil trays—prepackaged foods have morphed into gourmet pizzas and finger-food delights, many that never need to see the inside of a freezer. They can be eaten at home when you don’t feel like cooking or, even better, they can be thrown into your bag as you head off to work. No muss, no fuss.
Many nurses enjoy the convenience of prepackaged foods, from the little packets of crackers and cheese to microwavable meals. But does all this convenience comes at a price, and not just in the financial sense?
We asked nurses and experts to weigh in on the issue.
Quick nutrition versus long-term effects
Beth, an RN in Albuquerque, N.M., admits to bringing processed foods to work daily. Originally, she was bringing Kraft Lunchables to work. These packages contain crackers, lunch meat and processed cheese. “Although I felt they were actually bad for me, I could control the portions and calories,” she says. But Beth learned that this didn’t end up being true. “I never felt full or satiated when eating the Lunchables,” she says. “This led me to snack more frequently on things like candy bars.” This definitely wasn’t the goal because part of the reason for her meal choices was a desire to help manage her weight.
According to Michael B. Wald, MD, CNS, CCN, CDN, Director of Nutritional Services at Integrated Medicine & Nutrition, P.C., in Mount Kisco, N.Y., prepackaged foods are not a good choice. “In the short term, you are getting a lift from the calories and nutrition,” he says. “But you might also become fatigued, get a headache or suffer from one or more of the other health problems that can result from long-term consumption.”
Our diet and our self-image
Just as there is often criticism for nurses who smoke, there is pressure for nurses to live a healthy lifestyle, including eating healthy foods. After all, as nurses, we constantly counsel patients on healthy eating habits. We advise them to cut back on calories, fats, sodium and more. Yet, many nurses don’t follow this advice themselves. Beth says, “I think eating the unhealthy prepackaged food made me feel fat and unhealthy. I don’t know if this makes sense, but eating Lunchables every day made me feel less ‘nurse-like.’ I try to counsel people on healthy diets and I believe in putting myself forward as an example, yet there I was eating crap for lunch. It was embarrassing.”
What's Your Health Care IQ?
We know what we should be eating. When we don’t do it, often times it leads to guilt.
Nurse “busy-ness” and stress
Toronto, Canada-area nurse Kim, who works 12-hour shifts on a rotation basis, knows what it’s like to bounce from eating at one time of day to another. She says that the nursing lifestyle absolutely contributes to the reliance on this quick food source. “It’s tiring, turning around from days to night, or working three 12-hour shifts,” she says. “It doesn’t give much time at home to sleep, never mind cook.”
And at work, it’s not much better. As Beth says, “For nurses, the term ‘meal break’ is laughable. It often amounts to a mere five to 10 minutes. That’s hardly enough time to prepare homemade food and consume it.”
And it’s precisely because of this that many nurses resort to prepackaged foods. But do these foods really help ease our stress or could they add to it?
According to Dr. Wald, food can definitely add to stress. “Packaged foods containing neuroactive chemicals may affect behavior and mood,” he says. “Packaged foods high in saturated fats may affect circulation and overall digestion, altering our ability to manage daily stress of all types.” Not only that, but some foods contain questionable ingredients that could increase the chances of certain illnesses, such as colon cancer. Others contain high amounts of sodium and/or cholesterol—definite no-nos for the cardiovascular system.