Dr Justine Butler, Viva!’s Senior Health Researcher, reveals the struggles still facing vegans having to stay in hospital
Good nutrition is always important, but especially so when you are ill or recovering in hospital. Sadly, too many vegan hospital patients are still being forced to go hungry or make their own arrangements.
With over 600,000 vegans in the UK now, veganism is no longer considered a fad. Most cafés, restaurants and supermarkets provide vegan options and the plant-based food market is booming.
So it seems reasonable to assume that when a vegan goes to hospital (it does happen!), they will be offered something suitable to eat. Viva! Health has been contacted by many people who have been left to go hungry in hospital – the stories are heartbreaking.
At a time when good nutrition really matters, when you are ill or recovering from an accident or illness, vegan hospital patients are being left feeling hungry, vulnerable and isolated.
Food is a fundamental part of wellbeing and lying in a hospital bed feeling hungry and dreading what the next dinner trolley will bring is not conducive to recovery.
A Complete Lack of Understanding
In 2015, after hearing the shocking experiences of vegans in hospitals up and down the UK, I set up the Facebook group Vegan Hospital Food, Hits & Misses, asking people to send in photos of their food – the good, the bad and the ugly! They responded well and have now sent almost 200 photos.
There are pictures of lonely, overcooked vegetables perched on the side of otherwise empty plates. Chips, instant mash, peas, diced carrots or sweetcorn with nothing else make a regular appearance, as does the ubiquitous solitary baked potato – which was all one patient had to eat for five days in a row.
Patients have been offered lettuce sandwiches with no margarine, liquid instant mash and frozen sprouts and juice as the only option for breakfast.
Others have been offered chicken casserole, beef, ham and cheese sandwiches, macaroni cheese and omelettes – there is clearly a lack of understanding, not only about the balance of foods people need, but about what a vegan diet actually is!
Many patients have sent photographs of vegetable or chickpea curry with rice. Most hospitals keep a separate allergy menu that may or may not have vegan options. You might find a kosher, halal or an Asian vegetarian menu that includes vegan options. If you don’t ask, you don’t get!
Getting it Right
There are positive stories too; some patients have been delighted with the food they got. Croydon and Hammersmith hospitals seems to have got the hang of it, with a number of photos sent in from happy vegan patients: beany cottage pies; chickpea curries and rice; baked potato and beans served with a generous mixed leaf salad with grated carrot, cucumber and tomato.
Birmingham Women’s Hospital kept a vegan patient hungry when there was nothing for them, but redeemed themselves over the next few meals, serving a spicy vegetable casserole, Mediterranean veg pasta and butternut squash and kidney bean rice with salad – “really, really tasty”.
West Suffolk hospital in Bury St Edmunds made someone happy with a butternut squash soup, cottage pie and soya milk rice pudding. Queen Alexandra Hospital in Portsmouth had a lovely vegan menu, according to one patient, with soya mince chilli with rice and peas, Caribbean curry, spinach and chickpea curry, lentil stew with peas or ratatouille, both served with rosemary roast potatoes – “every single one of them was lovely”. If these hospitals can do it, they all can.
There is a wealth of evidence showing how plant-based diets lower the risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, stroke and certain cancers. Vegans are less likely to suffer from these, but we aren’t bulletproof and, if we go to hospital, why shouldn’t we expect healthy food?
Every year, the NHS serves more than 140 million meals to patients across the country at a cost of £560 million in 2016/17, which is an average of about £11 per patient per day.
The lack of basic nutritional knowledge displayed by some catering companies running food services is simply not acceptable. They should be including healthy vegan options in daily menus, like most other catering businesses.
In 2019, an employment judge determined that ethical veganism satisfies the tests needed to amount to a philosophical belief and is therefore protected under the Equality Act 2010.
This decision has an impact in the employment setting, but also in the provision of goods and services. Dr Jeanette Rowley, a legal expert with the Vegan Society, said: “It’s a fantastic day for animals and it’s a fantastic day for vegans who should get more institutional support in hospitals or in schools”.
In 2020, vegan patients are still routinely going hungry or relying on family and friends for food. This, of course, has been impossible during the coronavirus pandemic when hospitals had to suspend visiting and patients had to eat what there was or go hungry.
Where people have mentioned the care they received, they have heaped praise on doctors, nurses and healthcare workers. Our NHS is something to be extremely proud of, and it has been pushed to the limits during the pandemic.
However, given the strong links between poor diet and disease, it’s time for health authorities to step up and ensure that there is better provision of vegan food on hospital menus. Everyone can eat vegan food, so making sure it’s the norm, rather than the exception, will promote inclusivity, sustainability and good nutrition.
When it comes to taking medicines, should vegans take non-vegan medicines?