If the horsemeat controversy has made you uneasy about eating meat, Lisa Salmon looks at the pros and cons of vegetarian and meat diets, including new research which suggests vegetarians are a third less likely to suffer heart disease
As the horsemeat scandal rages, many meat eaters will be wondering exactly what they've been consuming. And if you're a vegetarian, recent events will probably leave you more convinced than ever that you made the right choice.
New research has shown that vegetarians are a third less likely to suffer from heart disease than meat eaters, statistics that will make a meat-free diet a more attractive proposition for some.
However, the meat industry is eager to point out that vegetarians may be low in certain essential vitamins and minerals, and that eating lean red meat is an important part of a healthy diet.
But do we really need meat to be healthy, or is the modern human better suited to a vegetarian diet?
A new study from the University of Oxford has found that the risk of heart disease, the biggest killer in the UK, is 32% lower in vegetarians than people who eat meat and fish.
The study tracked almost 45,000 volunteers from throughout the 1990s until 2009, and found that vegetarians had lower blood pressures and cholesterol levels than non-vegetarians, as well as lower body mass index (BMI) and fewer cases of diabetes.
Dr Francesca Crowe, lead author of the study, explains: "Most of the difference in risk is probably caused by effects on cholesterol and blood pressure, and shows the important role of diet in the prevention of heart disease."
The Vegetarian Society suggests horsemeat and health factors may have combined to make a meat-free diet more of a consideration for some people.
"This year hasn't started well for meat eaters," says the society's spokesperson, Liz O'Neill.
"First horsemeat is found in certain beef products, and then a new report indicates meat eaters have a much higher risk of heart disease than vegetarians.
"Throw in higher rates of obesity, high blood pressure and a number of different cancers and it's hard to see why anyone still wants to eat meat."
She says many health studies have shown positive outcomes for vegetarians, and points out: "The new study findings make it clear that relying on meat for your daily nutritional needs means taking a significant unnecessary risk with your health."
Recent figures from the Office for National Statistics indicate that 2% of UK adults - around 1.2 million people - are vegetarian, and O'Neill stresses that a balanced vegetarian diet will meet their nutritional requirements.
"This new study clearly shows that being vegetarian is, regardless of other factors, simply better for your heart," she says.
"If you don't smoke, then eating meat may be one of the biggest risk factors in your lifestyle, whereas a balanced vegetarian diet is delicious, good for the planet and good for people."
Yet meat has been "a staple part of the human diet since the dawn of mankind", insists the Meat Advisory Panel (MAP), an expert body funded by the meat industry.
It points out that Government dietary surveys show some UK diets are "worryingly low" in certain nutrients commonly found in meat, such as vitamin A, vitamin D, iron, magnesium, zinc, selenium and potassium, and that red meat nutrients play a role in supporting cognitive function, immune health and addressing iron deficiency.
MAP spokesperson Dr Carrie Ruxton, a registered dietician, points out: "Other studies have found that the benefits attributed to the vegetarian lifestyle are linked to increased levels of physical activity, no smoking and little alcohol, as well as positive dietary attributes such as more fruit, vegetables, beans and pulses.
"There's no reason why meat eaters couldn't access these benefits too if they also ate high quality, lean red meats."
Ruxton says that while meat is indeed higher in saturated fats and lower in the healthier omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids, many vegetarians continue to eat cheese, butter and cream which are all high in saturated fat.
While vegan diets, which contain no animal products at all, tend to be low in all fats, Ruxton points out that opportunities for getting enough vitamin B12 and B6, iron, vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids are all reduced, as these nutrients are mainly found in animal products.
Ruxton admits that vegetarian diets are perfectly healthy as long as a variety of foods are eaten, but warns it's harder to reach certain recommended nutrient intakes, although this can sometimes be overcome by taking a supplement or consuming vitamin C-rich foods to boost iron absorption.
She adds: "Vegetarian diets are a lifestyle choice and aren't necessary for optimal health.
"Moderate amounts of lean red meat can be enjoyed within a diet which is also rich in fruit, vegetables, beans, pulses and oily fish. This way you get the best of both worlds."
HEALTHY BALANCED DIET
British Dietetic Association spokesperson Helen Bond says that while research shows the benefits of vegetarianism, everyone should be trying to eat a healthy balanced diet, and that can include both meat and non-meat.
"We know fruits and vegetables are associated with lower risk of lots of diseases including cancer and heart disease," she says.
"But I don't think meat is bad, it's just a question of what meat you're choosing."
The Department of Health recommends adults should eat no more than 70g of cooked red or processed meat a day - equivalent to three rashers of bacon or three slices of thin ham.
"Red meat is still important for iron - it's much better absorbed from red meat - zinc, selenium, B vitamins and vitamin D," explains Bond.
"My advice would be to cut down on processed meat, and follow the Department of Health guidelines on red meat.
"Go for leaner cuts, and if you can see fat on it, cut it off."
She says that if a balanced diet is eaten, the risk of vitamin and mineral deficiencies should be no greater for vegetarians than for meat eaters.
And she advises that supplements should only be taken if they're really needed, pointing out that nutrients from food are much better absorbed than those from supplements.
"Overall, a healthy balanced diet is what's important, whether that includes meat or not," she stresses.
"Just be aware that you're eating from the right food groups, as outlined in the eatwell plate."
The eatwell plate shows the different types of food needed, and in what proportions, for a well-balanced, healthy diet. See it at www.nhs.uk/Livewell/Goodfood/Pages/eatwell-plate.aspx
- Vitamin B12: Helps form red blood cells and nerve fibres, and is only found naturally in meat, fish, eggs and milk, although it's sometimes added to cereals, bread and yeast spreads.
- Nutrients such as vitamin A and D, magnesium, zinc, selenium and potassium, that Government dietary surveys have shown some UK diets are low in.
- Protein: Meat is high in protein, which is needed for cell growth and repair.
- Iron: Sourced from animals, it's more easily absorbed than iron from plants and is important for the formation of red blood cells and the work of the body's immune system and metabolism. Not enough can lead to iron deficiency anaemia.
- Fats: Meat contains saturated fat which can block the absorption of essential fats which help maintain cell structure, and increase cholesterol in the blood which can lead to heart disease. But lean red meat also contains heart-healthy nutrients and polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats.
A VEGETARIAN DIET PROVIDES
- Protein: Though typically lower in protein than non-vegetarian diets, a vegetarian can get protein through foods such as pulses, nuts, eggs, dairy foods, cereals, soya and Quorn.
- Vitamins: A high intake of fruit and vegetables means more vitamins, minerals such as potassium and magnesium, and antioxidants from many important nutrients such as vitamin C, vitamin E and beta-carotene, which have been shown to reduce the risk of certain cancers and heart disease.
- Fats: Vegetarians usually eat fewer saturated fats - found in meat and dairy products - and more unsaturated fats - found in vegetable oils such as olive oil, nuts, seeds and avocados. With the exception of fish, plant foods are generally higher in polyunsaturated fats than foods from animals. Such fats have been shown to prevent elevated cholesterol in the blood.
- Vitamin B12: Helps form red blood cells and nerve fibres, and vegetarians can get it from eggs and milk. It may also be added to cereals, soya milk, vegetable burgers and yeast extract.
- Iron: Vegetarian sources of iron include eggs, pulses, nuts, seeds, green leafy vegetables, dried fruit and fortified breakfast cereals.