If you have coeliac disease and need to go into hospital, you must tell hospital staff that you need a gluten free diet.
Some hospitals will be able to cater for your diet with ease and other places may find it more difficult to cater for you, so you need to check.
The good news is that standards have been in place since 2015 meaning that there are mandatory standards covering hospital food in England and Scotland. There's also standards in place in Wales and Northern Ireland too.
Remember some of our member benefits can help you while you are in hospital, including access to the helpline and our Food and Drink Guide. You can access these from hospital if needed. Remember we're here to help you.
Unplanned stays in hospital
Not all staff will understand your need for a gluten free diet. When you’re choosing what to eat from the menu, ask the ward housekeeper which options you can have on your gluten free diet.
Some hospitals highlight on the menu which meals are gluten free and some even have a separate gluten free menu. Ask to see a dietitian when you are first admitted to hospital, as it is often the dietitian who will order a meal for you.
Be aware that well meaning staff may get it wrong as they may not fully understand the gluten free diet. For example, they may add croutons which contain gluten to soup that would otherwise be okay for you to eat.
If you are unsure if your meal is okay for you to eat, check again with the ward housekeeper or a member of nursing staff.
Planned stays in hospital
If your stay in hospital is planned, speak to the ward sister or hospital dietitian beforehand so they know that you need a gluten free diet.
Don’t worry that this is ‘making a fuss’, the staff will be glad of the warning so they can be prepared. This should also give the catering team time to order in gluten free foods like bread and crackers if they don't usually have them in.
To make sure that your stay goes smoothly, here are a few questions to ask beforehand:
- Do I need to see the hospital dietitian to make sure I can get meals and snacks that I can eat?
- Does the hospital have a gluten free menu?
- Are gluten free snacks available?
Take your Food and Drink Guide with you or make sure you’ve downloaded our app – it may come in handy if you or the hospital staff need to check any foods.
Take your Coeliac UK membership card with you – it has our helpline number on it so if you or staff are unsure about a food, you can call us.
If something goes wrong
If you’re not happy with the food that is provided during your hospital stay, we recommend speaking to the ward staff about this while you are there. You can also ask to speak to the hospital dietitian who may be able to talk to the catering staff on your behalf.
If you feel more comfortable speaking to someone after your stay, you can contact the Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS) at the hospital. Each hospital has a PALS team and it is their job to listen to patients, their relatives, carers and friends about any positive or negative experiences they have had during their stay. They will try to answer any questions and resolve any concerns as quickly as possible.
You could also contact the Nutrition and Dietetic team at the hospital and let them know your concerns. They can then pass your feedback on to the catering department on your behalf.
Hospital food standards
What to expect from a hospital in one of the 4 countries in the United Kingdom.
Compulsory hospital food standards were introduced to NHS hospitals in England for the first time in 2015. The government introduced five mandatory food standards with which all hospitals have to comply. These are legally binding and part of every hospital's basic contract.
The five standards were decided following advice from the Independent Hospital Food Standards Panel, an independent group of experts established by the Department of Health. Coeliac UK has been involved in advising the Hospital Food Standards Panel which recommended the British Dietetic Association’s Nutrition and Hydration Digest (2012) as one of the five legally binding standards. The Digest was developed with Coeliac UK and covers nutrition and therapeutic diets. It recommends that all hospitals have a policy covering gluten free provision, that gluten free food is available in hospitals and that preparation and labelling of food is consistent with the law and guidance from the Food Standards Agency.
Complementing the new standards, the Secretary of State for Health, announced hospitals will for the first time be ranked on the NHS Choices website for the quality of their food.
The Get your 10 a day! The Nursing Care Standards for Food in Hospital were published in 2007 to improve nutritional standards of meals served in hospitals in Northern Ireland. One of the ten standards requires patients who need nutritional intervention to have a nursing care plan, however there is no specific mention of special diets or coeliac disease.
The standards do state that all patients should be screened for malnutrition when they are admitted to hospital, so we recommend mentioning that you need a gluten free diet as soon as you are admitted, or if you know that you are going in to hospital then call to speak to the ward staff in advance.
The Food in Hospitals: National Catering and Nutrition Specification for Food and Fluid Provision in Hospitals in Scotland guidance was developed to support Scottish NHS Boards in providing good hospital food. The guidance states that all patients must be offered a choice of food that meets their dietary needs, including choice for individuals requiring a therapeutic or special diet, which includes a gluten free diet.
Upon admittance to hospital, patient’s dietary needs should be assessed to make sure that the hospital can cater for them. So if you are on a gluten free diet and are admitted into hospital, staff will identify your requirements and cater for you. The nurse responsible for the ward is responsible for ensuring that patients receive the right meal.
Coeliac UK responded to a recent consultation on the revision of the overarching standards, the Standards for Food, Fluid and Nutritional Care, by Healthcare Improvement Scotland. We are pleased to see a concise standard that covers the areas needed for hospitals to implement good catering standards for people with coeliac disease.
Hospitals in Wales follow the All Wales Nutrition and Catering Standards for Food and Fluid Provision for Hospital Inpatients which were published in 2011. These standards are for use in hospitals Wales and provide technical guidance for caterers, dietitians and nursing staff responsible for meeting the nutritional needs of patients. The standards became mandatory for all hospitals in Wales from April 2013.
The standards specify that all hospitals and Local Health Boards must provide gluten free meals for people with coeliac disease. The standards also specify that patients must be provided with a choice of meals and that these meals also meet nutritional standards. In addition, upon admittance to a hospital a patient’s dietary needs must be assessed to make sure that the hospital can cater for them. The standards also highlight the importance of minimising cross contamination by thoroughly cleaning work areas, surfaces, serving areas, utensils, equipment, chopping boards and hands.