Promoting good nutrition for staff and visitors

Caterers within the healthcare setting have a role in assisting staff and visitors to make healthier choices, including promoting vegan options

The number of vegans in Great Britain has quadrupled between the years 2014 to 2019, according to information from The Vegan Society. The UK was also the most popular country for veganism according to Google Trends. In May 2021, a survey by The Vegan Society revealed one in four population had reduced the amount of animal products they were consuming since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

A well-planned, balanced healthy vegan diet is rich in fibre, and can be low in saturated fat. Studies show that vegetarians and vegans are more likely to have a lower body mass index and reduced incidence of hypertension, high cholesterol and Type 2 diabetes. A growing body of evidence shows that a healthy vegan diet not only has a positive impact on human health but also on the planet. Adopting a vegan diet is one of the most effective ways to significantly reduce one’s carbon footprint. With the climate emergency upon us, it is important to consider building a sustainable food system for future generations. A strong vegan offering can help institutions like hospitals to provide nutritious, sustainable and inclusive food for staff, visitors and service users.

How do vegan options promote good nutrition for staff and visitors?
The Eatwell Guide recommends that we eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables per day, eat more pulses (e.g. kidney beans, lentils and peas) and choose wholegrain versions of starchy carbohydrates. These recommendations are useful for meeting daily fibre targets. Fibre is important for helping to reduce the risk of chronic disease, benefit gut health and prevent constipation.

The Eatwell Guide also emphasises the importance of opting for unsaturated oils and spreads and reducing red and processed meat consumption. Based on data collected in 2020 as part of the National Diet and Nutrition Survey, fibre, fruit and vegetable intake were below the recommendations for all age groups. The mean intake of saturated fat exceeded the recommendation in all groups.  

In keeping with public health guidance, The Government Buying Standards nutritional guidance states that main meals containing beans and/or pulses should be made available at least once a week along with encouragement towards reducing saturated fat, which can be found in baked goods, oils, fats, meat and dairy products. Over half of all the food provided in NHS hospitals is served to staff and visitors. Government statistics for 2019 state that 28 per cent of adults are living with obesity and a survey from 2017 show that 25 per cent of nurses in England are living with obesity.

Caterers within the healthcare setting have a role in assisting staff and visitors to make healthier choices. Increasing good vegan meal options within this sector can be one way in which caterers meet this aim. A balanced vegan diet can help to reduce the risk of chronic disease and can also help to reduce the numbers of those that need to access healthcare services in the future. Increasing the vegan offerings to staff and visitors not only helps caterers to meet healthy eating guidance but also provides tasty and nutritious options to the growing number of vegans in the UK.  

Can vegan offerings promote good nutrition for patients?
Sound vegan offerings are not only beneficial for staff and visitors but can also be nutritious for those that are acutely unwell; if higher calorie and protein meals, snacks and drinks are made available. Crucially, vegan menu options ensure that vegans can practice their ethical beliefs by consuming a diet that aligns with their values.

Dr Jeanette Rowley, from the International Rights Network at The Vegan Society, states that ‘public bodies have legal duties under human rights and equality law, to do everything reasonably possible to ensure that vegans have access to a diet that aligns with their ethical convictions’.

Not only are vegan choices suitable for vegans but they encourage inclusivity on the menu – for example, certain options may be acceptable to those who do not eat meat for religious reasons. If vegan meals meet the relevant allergy standards, these meals can also be suitable for people with milk or egg allergies without the need for a special request.

The Nutrition and Hydration Digest produced by the British Dietetic Association’s Food Services Specialist Group gives guidance on how vegan offerings can meet nutritional targets such as increased protein and calorie needs. Recommendations include using vegan QuornTM and soya products which are examples of high-quality protein substitutes for meat. Anglia Crown is an example of a manufacturing company that has worked with The Vegan Society to provide vegan meals that meet nutritional standards for hospital patients.

Ruth Smith, Company Dietitian, commented: “Working with The Vegan Society during the enhancement of our vegan range was really insightful and helped provide practical tips on how to easily create tasty, vegan-suitable dishes that are popular across the board. It was also helpful to ensure that nutritionally these products achieve the necessary energy and protein levels.”

What are the benefits of vegan diets on the environment?
Increasing vegan offerings in the healthcare setting is not only beneficial for people, but also the planet. Research published in the journal Global Food Security estimated that animal products account for 83 per cent of the emissions caused by EU diets. The government aims to reach net zero greenhouse gases by 2050 which means a significant reduction in carbon emissions requiring that emissions produced must be equal to or less than what is removed from the atmosphere. If the government is to reach this target, the food system must change. There is growing evidence that switching to a plant-based diet is one of the most effective ways for reducing an individual’s carbon footprint. Vegan diets can help to meet this ambition.

How can vegan offerings help to meet sustainability targets?  
When looking to meet sustainability targets, vegan offerings can be more sustainable long term as plant agriculture generally uses less resources than animal farming. Keeping this in mind will help us to ensure that there are enough resources available for future generations. In fact, The Vegan Society’s ‘Grow Green’ campaign highlights that ‘the UK provides good growing conditions for plant proteins for direct human consumption, such as fava beans, peas, hemp seed or sweet lupin’. Choosing to support British farmers can help us to build a sustainable food system.

Other factors to be considered are reducing food waste as this can contribute to greenhouse gases when food is discarded in landfills. Buying seasonal and local produce can also help to limit the carbon footprint caused by the transportation of food from other countries.

In the Delivering a ‘Net Zero’ National Health Service report, it is highlighted that ‘healthier, locally sourced food can improve well-being while cutting emissions related to agriculture, transport, storage and waste across the supply chain and on NHS estate’. This further demonstrates how vegan food utilising plant protein sources can assist in delivering outcomes for individuals and also institutions at large.  

It is time for action
The Vegan Society’s ‘Catering for Everyone’ campaign calls for good-quality, nutritious vegan options to be available on every public sector menu. Whether you are a health professional, administrator or caterer within the healthcare setting, you can do your part.

Here are some suggestions that can get you started:

•    Offer more tasty and nutritious vegan options.
•    Utilise tasty descriptors for plant-based food.  
•    Give vegan options a default presence on menus which can influence the subconscious choice of the consumer. Vegan options can be enjoyed by everyone.
•    Employ more sustainable buying practices, e.g. local and seasonal produce.
•    Contact The Vegan Society for support on how you can provide vegan offerings that are tasty and meet nutritional targets.  

Take-home messages

•    There is a growing number of vegans and those that are choosing to eat more plant-based foods.  
•    Well-planned and balanced vegan offerings can be nutritious and promote healthier eating principles regardless of dietary pattern.
•    Vegan offerings can help to reduce carbon emissions and help meet government targets to be net zero by 2050.  
•    Utilising more beans and pulses in meals is one way to employ more sustainable food practices as well as being a big part of healthy vegan offerings.  
•    ‘Catering for Everyone’ calls for good vegan food to be available on every public sector menu.