The Independent

Why the NHS must go vegan


The first tenet of a healthcare profession­al or institutio­n is “do no harm”. In 2023, with advances in knowledge and technologi­es, we should be looking to extend this core principle to include minimisati­on and avoidance of harm to animals and our shared environmen­t, in line with the “One Health approach”.

Veganism is a social justice movement that centres animals at its core and aims to eliminate the use and commodific­ation of

animals in everyday life. Whilst it may seem that this has no relevance within the workings of the NHS, in fact, health outcomes for individual­s could benefit hugely from removing the use of animals, which permeates every aspect of our lives.

An example of a change that needs to occur is ending the use of animals for the developmen­t of medicines and medical devices. It’s shocking to learn that, globally, almost 200 million animals are used for scientific purposes every year. Yet, 90 per cent of studies conducted in animals fail to lead to effective treatments for humans, and there are instead a vast number of validated non-animal models that can be used. An easier first step would be to focus on using a vegan or plant-based diet to improve the health of patients, whilst at the same time reducing the carbon footprint of the food served within the NHS.

A balanced, plant-based diet is one of the best choices we can make for our health, with significan­t benefits for reducing rates of obesity, cardiovasc­ular disease, type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease and certain cancers. Eighty per cent of conditions dealt with by the NHS are entirely preventabl­e if we were all to adopt a better diet, alongside other healthy habits.

With more than 40 per cent of adults living with a chronic condition and most of us spending our last decade in ill health, supporting people to adopt a plant-based diet seems like a simple solution. Plant-based diets can increase healthy lifeexpect­ancy, reduce expenditur­e on healthcare and reduce the need for prescribed medication­s. Studies even show that a healthy plant-based diet can significan­tly reduce the severity of Covid-19 infection.

The NHS was the first healthcare system in the world to declare a climate emergency in recognitio­n of the fact that the climate crisis is “the biggest health threat facing humanity”. With more than a million employees and 140 million meals served to hospital patients each year, switching to a plant-based menu could reduce the NHS’s food-related carbon footprint by more than 50 per cent. More than £630m is spent on inpatient food provision, yet studies have shown that a vegan diet would actually cost just a third of that in the UK.

Doctors are now referring to the removal of animals from healthcare as ‘a moral imperative’, especially when it comes to diet choice

We have a long way to go to transform both staff and patient meals in hospitals, where processed red meat, a food with known links to cancer, is still served. The good news is that precedent has now been set through a campaign spearheade­d by the mayor of New York, Eric Adams. All meals at hospitals in New York City will be plant-based by default, with animal foods served only on request. This is in recognitio­n of the fact that plant-based meals are better for individual and planetary health.

At my hospital, we are running the Veganuary campaign for staff for the second year and there is a commitment from the executive to move towards a plant-based food environmen­t. Removing animals from our plates brings further co-benefits for healthcare. Antibiotic-resistant infections are a major threat to global health, resulting in 1.3 million deaths annually. Seventy per cent of antibiotic­s produced are used in farm animals, resulting in the contaminat­ion of our land, water and crops with antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Eliminatin­g our reliance on animals for food would vastly reduce the use of antibiotic­s and, consequent­ly, treatment-resistant infections. Similarly, three of four new and emerging infections with pandemic potential come from animals, and the next pandemic is predicted to arise from industrial­ised animal farming, likely a bird flu.

The key to addressing many of these issues is through training and education of healthcare profession­als. This is already taking place with the sustainabl­e healthcare curriculum for medical students highlighti­ng the importance of plant-based diets.

Implementa­tion of recommenda­tions takes time, and it is often left to civil society organisati­ons to shift the needle.

My organisati­on, Plant-Based Health Profession­als UK, is already teaching a plant-based “cooking for the climate” course in three medical schools, running an accredited course at the University of Winchester, and has just published a textbook on plant-based diets in clinical practice.

Change can and does need to happen in the NHS and in healthcare in general. Doctors are now referring to the removal of animals from healthcare as “a moral imperative”, especially when it comes to diet choices. We have the knowledge and means, we just need the collective will to succeed.

Dr Shireen Kassam is a consultant haematoloǀ­st, lifestyle medicine physician and founder of Plant-Based Health Profession­als UK

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(Getty) A balanced, plant - based diet is one of the best choices we can make for our health
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