Animal Aid

NIL BY MOUTH - Vegan meals in hospitals

In the third section of Nil by Mouth we look at the provision of hospital meals for vegans and find that many hospitals have no concept of what being a vegan means.

Provision for vegans

  • 5% excellent
  • 8% good
  • 20% tolerable
  • 67% awful

More than two-thirds of the vegans who responded to our survey said that provision for their dietary requirements was 'awful'. 'They gave me chips and peas. Everyone else had fish with it. They had no other options. (I am vegan),' reported Hayley, who was in hospital in Kent.

Many vegans said that they had to ask friends and family members to bring in food so that they could have something to eat. One respondent told us, 'I have since obtained private health insurance simply so I can eat vegan food if I am ill again'.

Only 45% of hospitals provided any vegan alternatives to milk, marge and meat products. Of these, 58% provided non-dairy milk, 47% non-dairy marge and 50% non-dairy egg-free meat substitutes, such as vegan sausages. Lots of vegans had to have dry cereal or toast for breakfast as there were no non-dairy alternatives to milk or marge.

"I had contacted the hospital services 10 days before I went in to explain I was vegan and they said it would not be a problem. Ha ha. One of the ward staff fetched some soya milk so I could at least have cereal. Breakfast consisted of cereal and a dry roll and was the best meal of the day. One day I got a plate of baked beans and nothing else. I asked if I could have some toast and was told they didn't do toast. Other meals consisted of salad and a dry roll, chips and peas and potatoes. I told the doctor if I stayed any longer I would die of starvation."

Brenda's report of a hospital in Stafford

"I am a vegan working in this hospital. There is absolutely no vegan food other than a lettuce leaf. Salads are plentiful but made up with [dairy-based] mayonnaise. Vegetarian food is very limited and the cooking of it dubious. I asked a chef what oil they used and he would only reply "oil". I asked if it was vegetable oil, he repeated "oil". I have since been told by someone who orders provisions that it all depends on what is available. He told me that most of the time animal fat is used. Of any hospital I have worked in this is by far the worst... the most I would consume there is a black coffee."

Anon, London

Even more so than with vegetarians, an obstacle to vegans getting suitable food in hospital seems to be that staff have no concept of what being vegan entails. Sarah told us that during her stay in a Lancashire hospital 'the staff did their best but they didn't understand what a vegan diet was - I was asked "So you don't eat wheat?" There was no menu, I just told them what I could eat and they did their best to comply.' Vegans were also offered meals containing dairy products and eggs, because the hospital staff mistakenly thought they were suitable.

However, in a few hospitals, excellent provision was made for vegans. They were offered non-dairy milk, marge, cheese and yoghurts, and given a wide variety of suitable dishes to choose from at mealtimes.

One of the most worrying or our survey findings was how difficult it was for vegans who had just given birth to get any food, even when they had previously informed the hospital of their dietary needs. Not only is it crucial that new mothers receive the nourishment needed to recover from the birth, but they also need the appropriate proteins and nutrients that are provided by a well-balanced diet for breast feeding their babies.

Caz who had her baby in a Newcastle hospital told us, 'Even though I put it on my birth plan, given to staff, that I needed a vegan diet if I was to stay in hospital, it took more than a day until I got more than toast with jam. And on one occasion, I was told that I might not get a dinner as I hadn't filled out a menu, even though there was nothing vegan on it.'

In some hospitals, members of staff commented that breast-feeding on a vegan diet would not be nourishing for the baby. Carol said that when she gave birth to her twins in London, she was told she would 'starve' them if she attempted breast-feeding. When nursing her new-born in Knowsley, Dawn reported that 'a couple of nurses hinted I might not be able to provide enough milk for my baby due to not drinking cow's milk myself!!!'

In fact, recent scientific research has shown that women can quite easily breast-feed on a vegan diet and that the breast milk of vegans compares favourably with that of other mothers, who consume dairy and/or meat products. The milk is more pure as it contains fewer environmental contaminants and the mothers are less likely to pass on allergies to their babies as a result.

Babies fed by vegan mothers are also less likely to get colic, which scientists believe may be linked to cow antibodies passing into the breast milk of women who drink cows' milk. (See for more details regarding veganism and breast feeding and pregnancy.)

One of the major changes resulting from the BHF plan is that 'ethnic' food has been introduced into many hospital menus and some even provide a separate ethnic menu. Many of the dishes offered as ethnic are in fact vegan, such as vegetable curry, lentil dhal and tomato and mushroom balti.

For some vegans in our survey these ethnic menus were a blessing - when nothing else was suitable on the menu they could have a filling, nutritious veggie curry. However, hospitals were not always very forthcoming with offerings from the ethnic range for people who were not themselves 'ethnic'. Leslie lamented that during her stay in a London hospital 'there were Indian veggie meals that were not an option for me as I was the wrong religion. It would have been wonderful to have a veggie curry!'

In the final section of Nil by Mouth, we outline the benefits of an animal-free diet, report on the response to a second questionnaire which we sent to the hospitals themselves, and offer five tips for veggies and vegans in hospital.

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