In an open letter published May 28th 2020 in the Metro UK -on World Nutrition Day – NHS doctors and staff members have urged the government to pass new food legislation to shift the NHS focus from a reactive healthcare system to one that prevents chronic illness through the promotion of a fair, sustainable and healthy food system. The recommendations would not only dramatically improve the nation’s health but would also help to prevent against future zoonotic diseases and turn the tide on antibiotic resistance by reducing the nation’s reliance on animal agriculture.
In the letter, the doctors warn of the dangers of returning to ‘business as usual’ following the current coronavirus outbreak. They note the UK’s current food environment is fuelling an epidemic of chronic disease, with one in five deaths in this country associated with unhealthy diets. They write that this change must urgently be made to both prevent these diseases and reduce the death toll from future pandemics, as fatalities from Covid-19 have stood ahead of many comparable countries.
The group of doctors, led by Consultant Haematologist and Lifestyle Medicine Physician, Dr Shireen Kassam, state that these actions need to be fully embraced by NHS leaders and the Government, who should now place the nation’s long term health at the centre of their policy.
They propose six key changes to support this shift:
- Increased taxation on both retail and out-of-home food containing high levels of fat and salt, and a new tax on food produced using ingredients derived from industrial animal agriculture.
- That the ban on junk food advertising is accelerated and made total, banning such advertising even after the watershed.
- The introduction of subsidies to support the UK population in adopting a predominantly whole food and plant-based diet for both human and planetary health.
- Promotion of a plant-based food system through the adoption of Conservation Agriculture (‘No-Till’) systems to lower carbon emissions and reduce the risk of entering a ‘post-antibiotic era’.
- Protection of the oceans by discouraging over-fishing and reducing the reliance on fish consumption, finding alternate sources of long-chain omega-3 fats.
- Encourage healthy, sustainable eating through the reintroduction of public sector catering in schools and hospitals.
Dr Kassam says: “It is unacceptable that the NHS is collapsing under the weight of chronic disease, the majority of which could be prevented and treated by addressing diet and lifestyle factors”.
An increasing number of NHS doctors and staff are frustrated and disillusioned by the prevailing healthcare system, which acts to treat chronic illness rather than prevent it in the first place. Many are now turning to a field of medicine termed ‘lifestyle medicine’ in which illness is prevented, treated and oftentimes reversed by addressing the root cause; that is diet and lifestyle.
Dr Shireen Kassam, who has recently been backing the No Meat May campaign – which encourages the general public to reduce their intake of meat and animal products – says: “A key part of this is reducing our consumption of animal products and processed foods, which increase the incidence of chronic disease. These underlying health conditions are associated with an increased risk of dying from infections such as Covid-19. While it is a concern for everyone, communities of lower socio-economic means and ethnic minorities are disproportionately affected by diets high in processed foods and animal products, with healthy, affordable food often less accessible”.
The signatories of the letter are a diverse group of NHS staff, many of whom have worked for decades in a healthcare system that provides a ‘sticking plaster’ approach to dealing with chronic disease rather than addressing the social and lifestyle determinants of health, which have the ability for far greater benefits for the nation’s physical and mental health and well-being.
The group of NHS staff also state that we need to take action to protect our environment, and in turn protect ourselves. Animal agriculture is responsible for 14.5% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions and is also the starting point of diseases including Swine Flu (pigs), Avian Flu (birds) and Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE). Three in four of the world’s new emerging diseases are zoonotic, and through factory farming, overfishing and the wildlife trade, we create breeding grounds for new diseases, antibiotic resistance and new transmission pathways. Covid-19 has simply been an early warning that we must change our food supply chain now.”
The proposed changes are in-line with the recently published report by the European Commission, A Farm to Fork Strategy for a fair, healthy and environmentally-friendly food system, which calls for ‘a move to more plant-based diets… to reduce the risk of life-threatening diseases and the environmental impact of the food system.’
The full letter can be found here
Dr Shireen Kassam is a Consultant Haematologist and Honorary Senior Lecturer at King’s College Hospital, London with a specialist interest in the treatment of patients with lymphoma (cancer of the lymphatic system). She is also passionate about promoting plant-based nutrition for the prevention and reversal of chronic diseases and for maintaining optimal health after treatment for cancer.
She qualified as a medical doctor in 2000, initially training in general medicine, and gaining Membership of the Royal College of Physicians (MRCP; 2003). She then specialised in Haematology and achieved Fellowship of the Royal College of Pathologists (FRCPath; 2008). During training, she took time out to undertake a PhD (University of London, 2011). Her research investigated the role of selenium, an essential micronutrient, in sensitising cancer cells to chemotherapy. She was able to show that supra-nutritional doses of selenium could enhance the action of chemotherapy in the laboratory. She has published a number of peer-reviewed papers in the field of lymphoma.
Shireen discovered the power of nutrition for the prevention and treatment of disease in 2013 and since then has been following a whole food plant-based diet. She has since completed the eCornell certification in plant-based nutrition and in 2019 she became certified as a Lifestyle Medicine Physician by the International Board of Lifestyle Medicine.
Shireen founded Plant-based health professionals UK, a community interest company, in 2017. Since then she has been appointed as Visiting Professor of Plant-Based Nutrition at Winchester University where she has developed and runs an online course on plant-based nutrition for health professionals.