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Unhealthy Snacks in Health Clinics: A Deep Dive into Junk in Healthcare Facilities

A vending machine offering junk food

I had to go to my local health clinic. It's a public clinic which as in the rest of Spain offers universal healthcare to one and all. It always feels like its free as there are no bills but we of course pay for it with our taxes. Anyway as I was waiting in the line for an appointment, counting down the numbers as they came closer to the ticket clutched in my hand. I noticed in the corner there were vending machines. I still had ten numbers to go so, out of curiosity, I had a look at what food and drink were available to buy from this machine.

Expectations vs Reality: The Unhealthy Truth of Vending Machines in Health Clinics

I'm not totally sure what I expected to find in the machine. It being in a clinic, perhaps some 'healthy' snacks with 'natural', 'low-fat', 'gluten-free', 'sugar-free' or just plain 'HEALTHY' written in big letters on the packet. The problem with these marketing gimmicks is that the contents are normally anything but healthy however we feel good about eating it because it says it's good. Yes, we are really that simple. At least for the marketing departments of food conglomerates. But no there was none of that. There was no attempt to hide the fact that what the machine contained was sheer unadulterated unhealthiness.

The Unhealthy Choices: High-Calorie Products Dominating Health Clinic Vending Machines

In total 39 choices of high-calorie products with chocolate bars, crisps and sugary soft drinks leading the pack and only 1 healthy choice - a bottle of water.

Vending machine filled with junk food in a health clinic

Array of unhealthy snacks from a vending machine in a health clinic

Okay this is the list of food in the order that I spotted them.

Here are the drinks:

  • Coca Cola Zero

  • Coca Cola Diet

  • Coca Cola

  • Fanta Orange

  • Aquarius

  • Chocolate Milk

  • Redbull

  • Bio fruit

  • Mineral Water

And here are the food items:

  • Oreo

  • Kitkat

  • M&Ms

  • Skittles

  • Snickers

  • Kinder Bueno

  • Nestle Crunch

  • Maltesers

  • Twix

  • Mars Bar

  • Pringles

Let me stress this again. This is a health clinic. For treating people who are sick and to prevent illness. Yet displayed in front of me was a spectacular collection of saturated fat, salt, artificial flavourings, colourings, caffeine, sugar and sweeteners.

The Health Impact: How Junk Food Contributes to Obesity and Chronic Diseases

There is strong evidence that these foods cause obesity - a risk factor in diseases such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease - and they are partly to blame for many people ending up in health clinics and hospitals in the first place. Just so you know - Coca cola has about 9 teaspoons of sugar per can which you may think is just awful until I tell you that Fanta Orange has 12. Yes, 12 teaspoons. Awful with bells on. As for the edible items, Twix has 10 teaspoons and a Mars has 6.5. A marginal improvement but 6.5 spoons is still 6.5 spoons.

Notice how Orange Fanta is 'Naturally Flavored' i.e. they added water

I am sure you agree that food is medicine. And most of the food and drink in the vending machine is very bad medicine for most people. These types of food really weaken your body’s ability to digest.

The Paradox: Health Clinics Promoting Unhealthy Eating Habits

So the question is - why is a public health centre which is supposed to look after our health, actually encouraging us to become ill with a feast of saturated fat and sugar? They should of course be fountains of good health in our communities and encourage and support people in making healthier choices about the food they eat.

The Alternatives: How Some Places are Promoting Healthier Choices

You might not think that there are any alternatives but in Barcelona a company called Lo Fresco or 'Lof' have 'healthy' vending machines and offer a selection of fresh and organic items like fruits, nuts, gazpacho soup and other ready-prepared meals.

In Scotland every vending machine must have at least 30% 'healthy' products. In Denmark in some hospitals and clinics vending machines sell only salads and sandwiches. If you are in hospital and you want a high-sugar soft drink, you need a prescription! At hospital staff meetings, cake has been replaced by fruit. And in Wales, you cannot buy hot drinks containing sugar from vending machines. Period.

Even private businesses have followed suit. Lidl has banned sweets and chocolate bars from the checkout at all 600 of its stores in the UK and have replaced them with dried and fresh fruit, oatcakes and juices.

The Bigger Picture: Obesity Rates and the Role of Health Institutions in Promoting Healthy Eating

Spain has one of highest levels of obesity in the world. How on earth can people change their bad eating habits if the example given by health institutions is the opposite to the healthy eating advice given to patients.

The Call to Action: Changing the Food Landscape in Health Clinics

Sometimes I just despair at the stupidity of it because that is really what it is. Stupid. To allow that kind of food to be freely available in a health clinic. I know this clinic is not alone and that Spain too is joined by many other places whether it be fast food restaurants in hospital entrances or soft drink sponsorship of school sporting activities. I am sure you can find plenty of more examples.

Anyway, back in the clinic my number came up and I made my appointment with a receptionist who didn't seem to care and then saw the doctor who didn't seem to listen. What a state is modern healthcare.

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