Animal Aid

NIL BY MOUTH - Hospital survival guide for veggies

In this final section of Nil by Mouth we outline the health benefits of an animal-free diet, report on the response to our second questionnaire which was sent to the catering departments of 365 hospitals around the country, and round off with 5 tips for veggies and vegans who find themselves in hospital.

Under pressure

  • 12% of veggies and 27% of vegans felt under pressure at some point during their stay due to their dietary requirements

An unacceptable number of respondents said that they felt under pressure during their stay in hospital. Some were told that they were being awkward or fussy because they were veggie or vegan.

Marjorie, who stayed in a Norfolk hospital, received remarks such as 'you are difficult to feed' or 'you can't expect much choice if you are veggie'. Wendy said of her stay in a Liverpool hospital: 'The staff thought I was a "fusspot" and should have been grateful for any food I was given, even though it was not vegetarian.'

The merits of an animal-free diet

Following a well-balanced vegetarian diet is a healthy option - it contains less fat and cholesterol than a diet containing meat products and has been shown to reduce an individual's chances of becoming obese, having high blood pressure, suffering from a stroke, heart disease, heart attack and certain cancers. Vegans are even less likely to suffer from any of these conditions.

Being veggie or vegan can also increase the length of one's life. However, the results of our survey show that many patients were told that being vegetarian/vegan was bad for their health!

During her time in a London hospital, Jenny said that the 'consultant challenged me on my reasons and suggested my diet was unhealthy... I found the whole experience stressful to have to explain my diet to the staff.' Emma, who was in hospital in Dorset, reported: 'The doctor told me my "restricted" and "nonbalanced" diet was causing my problem...I'm still vegan and have now practically recovered.'

"I asked for a plate of just plain veg as there was nothing vegan on the menu. It arrived swimming in meaty gravy, after a long argument. I refused it, was told off, and the meal was replaced by one dripping in butter. Later I was told off by the sister for distressing the meal-server as she'd mistakenly thought vegans come from Venus and I was going crazy"

Pauline, who stayed in a Southampton hospital

Other veggies found themselves under pressure simply for being vegetarian. One respondent told us 'the dietician ridiculed me'. Sally, who stayed in an Ipswich hospital, reported: 'With only one veggie option I was pressurised to eat it whether or not I liked it, whilst meat-eaters had 5 options.'

Vegans were similarly pressured as a result of their dietary needs, sometimes feeling as if they were being forced to eat food containing dairy products. Lyn said of her time in a hospital in Nuneaton: 'It was as if I came from another planet. They catered for other people, like G and F diets, Muslims and vegetarians.' A Birmingham hospital in-patient reported: 'As a vegan they had no food for me and kept trying to make me eat veggie food instead.'

Hospital responses

In order to get a fully rounded idea of the provision made for vegetarians and vegans in hospital four years after the introduction of the BHF plan, we sent surveys to a selection of hospitals nationwide asking them to tell us about how their catering department accommodates these diets.

Of the 365 questionnaires sent out, only 15 hospitals replied, a mere 4%. However, even these (self-selected) limited responses confirmed what we had already learned: the quality, variety and availability of food suitable for vegetarian and vegan diets in any given hospital is a matter of sheer luck. And again, we found that there were clear indications that hospitals had a complete misunderstanding about what veggies and vegans eat.

One hospital in Wiltshire told us that it served fish pie as a veggie evening meal and another in Norfolk offered grated cheese sandwiches to vegans!

All the hospitals said that they followed guidelines when putting together their veggie options and 12 reported having a nutritionist at the hospital to help with such dietary requirements. However, only nine of the hospitals that responded said that they had specific guidelines for vegan/lactose-intolerant patients - although 13 claimed to provide vegan alternatives to milk, marge and meat.

Five tips for veggies and vegans in hospital

  • If possible tell the hospital beforehand that you are veggie or vegan and explain what you can and cannot eat.
  • If you are vegan, request specific alternatives, such as non-dairy milk and marge. Ask if it is necessary for you to bring your own.
  • When in hospital, if you are having trouble getting suitable food, ask to speak to the catering manager or nutritionist and explain how they could better meet your dietary needs.
  • Do not be afraid to ask for veggie or vegan dishes even if none is listed on the menu.
  • If you are admitted to hospital with no prior warning, explain (or get someone to explain on your behalf) that you are veggie/vegan and what this entails. The hospital may need time to sort out appropriate food for you, so ask friends and family to bring food in the meantime.

This concludes the Nil by Mouth report. For animal-free recipes, nutritional information and veggie factfiles see our special Veggie Month pages. Animal Aid also provides a free catering pack to help hospitals offer nutritional and tasty food for vegetarian and vegan patients. Click here to download the pack (PDF format).

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