Some hospitals have brought in "meat-free Mondays" as official guidelines recommend the health sector reduce consumption of meat and dairy. However, not everyone is supportive of the shift. Nicholas Jones reports on a hospital food fight.
Patients' health will suffer if hospitals cut down on meat and dairy in meals, the country's former chief education health and nutrition adviser warns.
However, another researcher has backed the push for plants to replace meat and dairy in meals, saying our meat consumption seriously harms health and the planet.
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New sustainability guidelines for the health sector include a recommendation to reduce meat and dairy, including by developing new hospital menus and encouraging plant-based diets. Some hospitals have brought in "meat-free Monday" trials.
The guidelines have been criticised by Grant Schofield, professor of public health at Auckland University of Technology.
"We are talking about our most vulnerable, sickest people, and food is an important part of that, and we take meat and dairy out - it just utterly beggars belief," he told the Herald.
"Hospital food is generally of a pretty poor quality anyway, it is generally pretty highly processed. If you wanted to improve hospital meals you would look at the quality of the food, and meat would be my last possible target, because it is one of the best sources of nutrition, protein, good-quality fat and vitamins and minerals. To take that out of it seems objectionable."
Schofield, who advocates a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet and quit his Government advisory role over a lack of action on obesity, said cutting meat and dairy in hospital meals to counter climate change was "nonsense".
"I think we have unfairly demonised meat and got it into our heads that it is somehow ruining the planet."
The Ministry of Health's sustainability guidelines were released in July, and note that agriculture accounts for almost half of New Zealand's greenhouse gas emissions.
"This substantial percentage is heavily influenced by current dietary preferences ... producing meat (particularly red meat) is resource intensive and has a larger carbon footprint than producing plant-based protein alternatives," the guidelines state under the action, "Reduce meat and dairy".
"The health sector can work with staff dieticians to develop alternative patient menus and encourage plant-based diets."
Associate Health Minister and Green Party MP Julie Anne Genter championed the guidelines and said they were full of other ideas including energy-efficient hospitals, and better transport planning. She was pleased to have recently launched a scheme to give hospital staff discounted e-bikes.
"The suggestion that DHBs consider what food is available for their staff, visitors and patients is one of a broad range of suggestions in the guide. DHBs are expected to make appropriate and responsible decisions about food menus that consider both the nutritional requirements of patients, staff and visitors, as well as the environmental impact of those choices," Genter said in a statement.
"I'm aware Nelson Marlborough DHB has trialled a meat-free Monday and fish Friday in their hospital cafe to a welcome reception, and Northland DHB is also trialling a small meat-free Monday pilot. It is a good thing to increase fruit and vegetables being eaten, and support healthy food choices."
After the guidelines were released Dieticians NZ, the professional body for dietetics, labelled the meat and dairy recommendation disappointing and not appropriate for those in hospital, who are often malnourished.
That position drew a response from Professor John Potter, of the Centre for Public Health Research at Massey University, who wrote in a blog post that even if some patients needed more protein, this could be sourced from plants. Hospitals should go further and initiative meat-free Mondays and stop serving all processed meats, Potter wrote.
"There are some hospital systems in high-income countries where there is no meat on the menu at all: Loma Linda University Hospital in California serves only vegetarian food and is ranked as the number one hospital in metropolitan California. The UK National Health Service has been working to reduce the amount of meat served to patients since 2009."
Potter told the Herald that research, including his own, showed people are eating 10 to 20 times more meat than humans had ever consumed and "this has seriously deleterious effects on our health and on the planet". The meat industry was pushing back against such evidence, he said.
Cutting down on meat and dairy in hospital meals would reduce the burden on people with diseases such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease, Potter said. It also signalled to patients that diet is important in disease-prevention, and would make people think more about what is good to eat once they are back home.
Ministry of Health eating guidelines recommend that if people eat red meat they consume less than 500g of cooked meat a week, with the fat removed.