What are the benefits of plant-based food?

Current dietary patterns are harmful to both planetary and human health. Dietitian Heather Russell, from The Vegan Society, explains why the time for change is now

Next year, Glasgow will host the United Nations climate change conference. Across the world, organisations and individuals are realising that there is an urgent need to challenge the status quo and execute solutions. Climate change is a crisis that we have to tackle from a number of angles, including food system changes. A growing body of evidence suggests that shifting towards more plant-based diets is beneficial for both planetary and human health. A strong vegan offering can help institutions like hospitals to provide nutritious, sustainable and inclusive food for staff, visitors and service users.

The climate emergency
This year, climate emergency declarations have been hitting the headlines. Organisations throughout the UK have been formally recognising the global impact of climate change, including NHS trusts.

Immediate and significant action is required to reduce our impact on the environment and food production and consumption are key topics. The UK’s Eatwell Guide is designed to shift people towards more plant-based diets for both health and sustainability reasons, and the need to make this a reality has never been so great.

Environmental benefits
Research has linked increased consumption of plant-derived foods with lower environmental impact. Environmental benefits include reforesting opportunities and reduced greenhouse gas emissions and water usage.

The Vegan Society’s Plate Up for the Planet campaign promotes the message that switching to a vegan diet can reduce the carbon footprint associated with food production by up to 50 per cent, highlighting the power of dietary changes. A 2017 report by The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) called ‘Eating for 2 degrees’ found that the dietary model with the lowest carbon footprint was the vegan one.

Setting an example
When it comes to sustainability, public sector caterers can set a great example because their outlets provide nearly a third of all UK meals. A recent Imperial College London report for the Committee on Climate Change has highlighted that broadening the meal choices available in hospitals and other institutions can help shift people towards lower impact and healthier eating habits. The report calls for regulation requiring that public sector menus carry at least one fully plant-based option that is available to everyone, which has already been implemented in Portugal.

NHS action
With the climate emergency in mind, it’s necessary to examine the role that the NHS can play in increasing people’s familiarity with sustainable and nutritious food. Food service companies and caterers can help hospitals to realise their sustainability ambitions by supporting staff, visitors and service users to eat more plant-based diets. In September, Sodexo announced their commitment to serving more planet-friendly plant foods following the publication of the ‘Future 50 Foods’ report by the WWF and Knorr Professional.

The NHS Sustainability Campaign is employing a number of approaches to raise awareness of sustainability issues in the world of healthcare, including roadshows aimed at increasing staff engagement. During the NHS Climate Change Summit in October, Vegan Society Campaigns Manager Mark Banahan presented our Catering for Everyone campaign, which calls for good vegan food on every public sector menu. In addition to protecting vegans’ rights, this approach has the potential to bring about huge environmental and public health benefits by normalising this type of food.

Public and planetary health
The British Dietetic Association’s guide to sustainable diets highlights that current dietary patterns are harmful to both planetary and human health. The National Diet and Nutrition Survey shows that UK diets contain too much saturated fat and too little fibre and fruit and vegetables.

Nutrition experts across the world agree that healthy diets are based on minimally processed plant foods like wholegrains, fruit and vegetables. The UK’s Eatwell Guide encourages people to consume more of these health-promoting foods and draws attention to beans, peas and lentils, which count towards one of your five-a-day as well as providing good quality protein.

It’s easy to create tasty and nutritious dishes that are high in fibre, vegetables and fruit and low in saturated fat when you make room for plant foods. This kind of cuisine is particularly valuable for patients focusing on healthy eating as well as visitors and employees. In fact, you can argue that effective marketing of tasty plant-based dishes to staff has the potential to be a great way of boosting workplace wellbeing since the NHS is one of the biggest employers in the world. The British Dietetic Association’s Nutrition and Hydration Digest devotes an entire chapter to catering for staff and visitors.

However, hospital nutrition isn’t just about standard healthy eating. It’s important that menus carry higher calorie and protein vegan options in order to meet the needs of nutritionally vulnerable patients. For example, the high quality protein found in soya-based products and Vegan Quorn can make a particularly valuable contribution to nutritional intakes in this context.

Inclusive menus
When you’re catering for a wide range of requirements in hospital, dishes that carry multiple dietary codes are valuable. Vegan food isn’t just for vegans; balanced plant-based dishes can be enjoyed by people who include animal products in their diets. This type of cuisine may be easily adapted to suit the needs of people who react to animal allergens like egg and milk. It may also be acceptable to people who avoid animal products for religious reasons. Therefore, there are multiple advantages of making vegan meals available to everyone without having to make a special request.

For catering services running cook-chill/freeze operations, vegan provision is influenced by the products offered by manufacturers. The Vegan Society has supported Anglia Crown with the development of their products, and the Vegan Trademark is a beacon to services looking to expand their vegan offering.

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.”

Take-home messages

•    Increasing consumption of plant-derived foods is a key element of the fight against climate change and other environmental threats
•    Making vegan options available to everyone helps to normalise plant-based food, as well as protecting vegan rights
•    It’s easy to develop vegan dishes that can meet a wide range of dietary requirements
•    A strong vegan offering can help hospital caterers to promote sustainability and good nutrition