In an attempt to solve the “obesity crisis”, it appears that the NHS is considering a total ban on the sale of sugary drinks in its hospitals.
A voluntary NHS England scheme to reduce the sale of sugary soft drinks, milkshakes and hot drinks with added sugar syrups failed to take off, and so the idea for a ban to come into effect from 1 July (alongside the new tax on sugary drinks that comes into effect today), is obviously sensible. It’s logical. It’s scientific. We all know, after all, that we should probably all have less sugar, less fat, less caffeine.
It makes total sense – except, of course, at 4am in the ICU waiting room, when all you need is a double-shot hazelnut latte and absolutely none of this to be happening.
This ban could only have been proposed by people who don’t know what it’s like to spend a great deal of time in hospital
I don’t know enough to speak with authority on the “obesity crisis”. What I do know, however, is that this sweeping ban on sugary drinks could only have been proposed by people who don’t know (or have forgotten) what it’s like to spend a great deal of time in hospital. Between 2015 and 2017, I was the carer for my then-partner, who was critically and chronically ill. He was often in hospital, and when he was in hospital, I was there too.
A friend told me that when her daughter, who has leukaemia, was in hospital, the staff wouldn’t allow diet drinks on the ward. “[They] said they were dangerous, and told us constantly to go and get a hot chocolate or a coffee to try and buck us up a bit.”
That’s what it’s like in hospital: you need something to keep you going. I didn’t eat much, I didn’t sleep much either. I didn’t have the time to cook or eat properly. I needed calories, and I needed caffeine. Crucially, it was delicious. Another friend tells me she goes for a syrupy latte after every single appointment, “because having to go to hospital all the time is hard and I want a little pick-me-up”. She’s not alone. Another patient told me she “mainlined lattes” while in a high-dependency unit last year. “Gingerbread was one of the few things I could stomach.”
Syrupy lattes and sugary drinks are for so many of us a tiny, accessible joy in a horrible time; a tiny memo from an outside world that has mostly ceased to exist. Professor John Wass, from the Obesity Health Alliance, said that the reduction in sales of unhealthy food and drink in hospitals would be an important step in the battle against obesity. “It also sends a strong message that the NHS is serious about cutting the amount of sugar in the nation’s diet,” he added.
But if you’re in hospital enough times that a sugary drink on the premises is going to make you obese, you have almost certainly got bigger things to worry about – and probably a team of doctors to do the worrying for you. You’ve already had to relinquish much of your life and your choices to professionals: to lose these last choices – a chocolate bar here, a coffee there – feels like the last infantilising indignity.
“You’re not going to change people’s eating habits when they are not feeling well,” said Duncan Burton, the director of patient experience at Kingston hospital in London, last year – and it’s true. People at their lowest ebb, caught as I was in a terrible limbo, don’t want to be lectured about sugar content. They would just like to get through the night. Who craves a side salad in times of stress? Burton, by the way, is leading a revolution: he has reintroduced breakfast toast, and home baking at tea-time. “If you can get them to eat a piece of cake,” he says “then fine … at least it is some nutrition.”
Food can be a joy and a treat and a pleasure – and there’s little enough of that in hospital. There is a tendency sometimes to forget this: a tendency towards thinking of food simply as fuel. Nutritionists serve up strange, chemical-tasting high-calorie powders and mousses; the menu is often outsourced to the cheapest possible catering company with little regard for either nutritional content or what might tempt a sick person to eat.
And none of this is ideal. Of course it isn’t. In an ideal world I would have eaten properly; got more rest. In an ideal world, there would be enough nurses that no carer would feel they had to be on hand every minute, and doctors would not be working unbelievably long shifts and covering four wards at once. In an ideal world, the menus would be tempting and delicious: real food, cooked properly, with enough for carers and visitors and doctors too. You’d have free tea and coffee-making facilities on every ward, and we would not be outsourcing nutrition to private for-profit companies. No sick person would have to suffer the indignity of microwaved instant potato; no carer would be pacing the halls with a full-fat Coke at 4am, because they’d be sleeping safe in the knowledge that the hospital was adequately and appropriately staffed. In an ideal world, we’d all be safe at home. That’s the crux of the matter. There is nothing ideal about any of this.
People get sick and people get sad. They need comfort and pleasure, and the NHS has precious little of both those things to go around. While that remains the case, the proposed ban feels like a sort of ivory-tower position. Stay sitting up all night, and then do it again, and do it again, by the same bed in ICU, and tell me you don’t end up craving a sugar hit.
• Ella Risbridger is a journalist and author