What does your health insurance provider tell you about healthy eating?

Source: Flickr/ Indi Samarajiva

Source: Flickr/ Indi Samarajiva

A Melbourne insurance broker offers a discount of up to 20% on life insurance policies for vegetarians and vegans (in the following referred to as veg*ans ). Why?

As a vegetarian or vegan, you don’t need convincing that you have chosen a healthier, kinder and more environmentally sustainable lifestyle than the general non-vegetarian population. Therefore at Make a Difference Insurance we ask why should you pay the same in insurance premiums as the general population considering vegetarians present a far lower risk of heart disease, hypertension, some cancers, obesity, strokes, osteoporosis, diabetes, kidney disease, and many other diseases and conditions.

The insurer claims that this is the only life insurance product in Australia that recognises veg*ans by providing a lower cost insurance policy.

We however want to commend you on making a commitment to yourself, the animals, and the environment by giving you a discount.

Given the mounting evidence for the health benefits of a plant-based diet, one would expect health insurance providers to show a similar view in regard to veg*an diets, either by encouraging their clients to adopt more healthy eating habits and/or by rewarding people who have adopted plant-based diets.

In some countries this is the case. For example, Kaiser Permanente, a managed care consortium in the United States, promotes a plant-based diet to its clients. Kaiser Permanente also encourages physicians to

consider recommending a plant-based diet to all their patients, especially those with high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or obesity.

In Germany, the BKK ProVIta health insurance supports veg*an diets through information on its website and free lectures. This insurer also plans to offer individual diet advice and cooking courses in the future.

However, it’s still the exception rather than the norm that health insurance companies/ organisations mention the words vegan, vegetarian or plant-based on their websites.

So what about Australian health insurers?

A government website lists the 35 health funds that are registered under the Private Health Insurance Act 2007. Most are not-for-profit organisations.

Four of these funds cover nearly 75% of market share:

  • Medibank Private – 29.1% market share. Listed on the ASX (MPL).
  • BUPA – 26.7% market share. This insurer operates on a for-profit basis and is owned by BUPA Group International, a group that operates on a not for profit basis.
  • HCF – 8% market share. This insurer is a mutual organisation that operates on a not-for-profit basis.
  • NIB – 7.7% market share. Listed on the ASX (NHF).

I searched the websites of these four insurers for references to a vegan, vegetarian or plant-based diets.

Medibank uses the catchphrase “I am better” in its advertisements. But does the company tell its customers how to get and stay well in the first place? People insured with Medibank receive a discount for selected gyms. That’s great. The Medibank be. magazine features several articles about veg*an cooking, and the Eat Clean Recipe Book appears to include mainly vegetarian recipes. Is this perhaps a hidden encouragement to adopt a plant-based diet?

BUPA provides information about the vegan diet that I would describe as unenthusiastic. On its web page, there is a definition, two headings asking “Is a vegan diet healthy?” and “What are the risks of a vegan diet?”, links to further information (i.e., Dietitians Association of Australia) and sources. The overall message is: a vegan diet CAN be healthy, but be careful and “check with your doctor or accredited practising dietitian before changing or starting an eating plan such as a vegan diet.” The web page on vegetarian diets is similar in tone. Another web page advises on the benefits of dietary fibre, but the recommendations for eating more fibre do not include a veg*an diet.

I didn’t find any relevant information on the HCF website.

NIB‘s website includes the “nib news“. Under the heading “Be stroke aware this September” is the following advice:

Enjoy a variety of foods, especially plant-based foods including fresh fruit and vegetable, legumes and wholegrain breads and cereals.

That’s it for the NIB website.

I wonder why these companies/organisations do not provide a strong endorsement of plant-based diets, given all the available evidence. Wouldn’t it be in their own interest to have healthier clients? Perhaps, health insurers could send their policy people to the upcoming VegMed Scientific Congress on medicine and vegetarian nutrition in Berlin.

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