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Cookies on the NHS England website: Making a Positive Impact towards Net Zero

CEO Tinh Phung
The Impact of our Food Systems Image source: Cartoon image of a group of healthcare professionals sitting at a table and eating Globally, poor diet is strongly linked to nine of the top fifteen risk...

The Impact of our Food Systems

Cartoon image of a group of healthcare professionals sitting at a table and eating Image source: Cartoon image of a group of healthcare professionals sitting at a table and eating

Globally, poor diet is strongly linked to nine of the top fifteen risk factors for morbidity, including high body mass index (BMI), high blood pressure, cardiac disease, diabetes, and malnutrition. In the UK, two-thirds of adults are overweight, with 27% living with obesity. Shockingly, individuals from the lowest socioeconomic areas are twice as likely to be obese compared to the least deprived, with a prevalence of 36% and 20%, respectively. Moreover, fruit and vegetable consumption is also impacted by socioeconomic factors, with those in the lowest income bracket consuming 42% less than the recommended amount.

The NHS in England serves approximately 140 million inpatient meals annually and spends £633 million on inpatient food provision. Additionally, retail revenue in hospitals, mainly from food and drink sales, amounts to an estimated £2-3 billion each year. Furthermore, the NHS in England prescribes over 300,000 Oral Nutritional Supplements (ONS) to patients.

The connection between food, health, and climate change is evident. Food accounts for approximately one-quarter of the UK's carbon footprint, mainly due to fertiliser use, livestock food production, and food waste. In fact, food and catering services in the NHS contribute to 6% of the total emissions, producing around 1,543 ktCO2e annually. By reducing food waste and promoting healthy, low-carbon diets rich in seasonal fruits and vegetables, beans, pulses, and other sustainable protein sources, we can not only improve health but also mitigate carbon emissions.

This presents an incredible opportunity for Allied Health Professionals (AHPs), including dietitians, occupational therapists, and speech and language therapists, to be agents of change within the food system. AHPs play a crucial role in patient care and have the potential to contribute significantly to the NHS's sustainability efforts.

Food Waste

In the UK, a staggering 9.5 million tonnes of food are wasted each year, leading to unnecessary resource depletion and emissions. Within hospitals, it is estimated that up to 18% of food may be wasted, equivalent to one in every six meals. This not only wastes the carbon emissions associated with growing, transporting, and preparing the meals but also deprives patients of essential nutrition needed for their recovery.

AHPs can make a difference by considering how they can directly support patients to eat better and waste less. While protected mealtimes are commonly implemented, many AHPs tend to leave during these periods to minimize disruption. Instead, they can utilize their skills to promote better eating habits and reduce food waste. By actively engaging with patients and providing support, AHPs can improve nutritional status while helping to mitigate food waste.

Packaging Waste

While recycling has become a part of our everyday lives, we often overlook the environmental impact of packaging waste in the healthcare sector. AHPs, like all healthcare staff, can contribute to reducing packaging waste, whether it is through recycling or waste management.

Prescribed food or nutrition products, such as Oral Nutritional Supplements (ONS), contribute significantly to packaging waste when prescribed inappropriately. Dietitians, in particular, play a vital role in ensuring the proper prescribing practices of ONS in hospitals and community/primary care settings. This may involve reducing or changing the form of ONS provided, adopting a "food first" approach, or conducting palatability trials with patients.

Furthermore, promoting good hydration is essential, and AHPs may need to provide fluids as part of treatment. By utilizing reusable containers, AHPs can significantly reduce plastic waste and contribute to a more sustainable healthcare system.

As healthcare professionals, AHPs have the unique opportunity to make a positive impact towards achieving a net-zero future. By actively addressing food and packaging waste, AHPs can contribute to the NHS's green agenda, promote sustainability, and improve patient outcomes.

Together, let's embrace sustainable practices and ensure a healthier future for both people and the planet.