Published in the Daily Mail 13th October 2020

By Shireen Kassam

I don’t really talk about myself in my writing as my public facing work is dedicated to education and advocacy on plant-based diets. However my personal and plant-based life collided with this sensationalised article, originally in the Times and later in the Daily Mail, on vegan diets at Cheltenham Ladies’ College.

I was a pupil at the Ladies College for 7 years. I often feel people judge me when I reveal that I went to one of the ‘poshest’ schools in the land. But my sister has told me to own it and say it as it was. I was a full music scholar so the school fees were not an issue and I got all my music lessons included, along side regular schooling. My parents always supported us to be the best we could be and for me my childhood was consumed with playing the piano and violin. This led to some amazing opportunities, including my first choice of school. I am even in touch with my amazing piano teacher from school days!

Back to my main point! I couldn’t let this story go without putting forward a counter viewpoint. There is just too much anti-vegan sentiment in the media and to get anything published you need a hook. See my letter in the Daily Mail from 13th October.

Full version with references

I was disappointed at sensationalised coverage of Cheltenham Ladies’ College decision to give regular blood tests to vegan children. I was a pupil at Cheltenham Ladies College from 1987–1994. At that time, my parents had to request vegetarian meals for me as I had never been keen on eating meat.

Eating disorders are a concern in adolescents with a prevalence of up to 13%. These disorders are indeed associated with restrictive eating habits but this does not equate to a vegan diet, which is increasingly being adopted by young people for ethical reasons. Nonetheless, the stereotype remains that both vegan and vegetarian diets are associated with a higher incidence of eating disorders even though the evidence for this is weak. More recent studies suggest that attitudes and behaviours towards food is similar for vegans and omnivores. Veganism amongst younger people is on the rise for reasons relating to animal justice and concerns for the environment with 10% of British children identifying as vegetarian or vegan. Both veganism and eating disorders are independently more common in females and one study examining the influence of the school on eating disorders found that they were more common in schools with higher proportion of female students and students with highly educated parents, both factors relevant to the Ladies’ College. Girls in particular feel pressured to look a certain way to fit in with societal expectation and this impacts on the risk of developing an eating disorder. This has been a concern for schools long before the rise in popularity of vegan diets with an article from 2002 already suggesting a widespread problem at Cheltenham Ladies’ College. Dr Adam Joiner, Psychiatrist adds ‘Veganism does not encourage or cause eating disorders. No dietary pattern leads to eating disorders. The cause of eating disorders is complex and multifactorial. Should a person who has an eating disorder adopt a vegan diet, it is most certainly not the lack of animal products causing an eating disorder’.

Veganism is a belief protected by the law in the same way as religious beliefs and a school such as the Cheltenham Ladies’ College should support vegans as they would Muslims who do not eat pork and only eat Halal meat and Hindu’s who are often vegetarians. The lack of provision of vegan meals at the school will certainly lead to nutritional deficiencies as vegans will not be able to obtain a balanced diet. The school needs to acknowledge and embrace the need to encourage more plant-based meals in line with the global shift that is required to mitigate the impact of climate change and ecological collapse. All the major dietetic associations, including the BDA in the UK, acknowledge a vegan diet is able to meet nutritional requirements for all age groups, including children. Studies show that vegan and vegetarian diets can support the normal growth and development of children. There are also a number of benefits for long-term health with vegan diets associated with lower risk of overweight and obesity, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers. My memories of food at Cheltenham Ladies Colleges was biscuits daily at morning break with jam donuts on a Thursday. Daily puddings at lunchtime and cake at teatime. With only 18% of children eating 5 portions of fruits and vegetables a day in the UK, I do hope that the food at the Ladies’ College now reflects healthy eating guidelines which all emphasise the need for a whole food plant-predominate diet.