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Wednesday, 5 July, 2000, 23:07 GMT 00:07 UK
Nutritionist sparks red meat row
Meat counter
Red meat could be good for you
A leading nutritionist has provoked controversy by suggesting people who do not eat red meat are risking their health.

The suggestion has been dismissed as flying the face of scientific evidence by vegan and vegetarian groups.

Professor Robert Pickard, director general of the British Nutrition Foundation, said a vegetarian diet was not natural for mankind.

Addressing a seminar of nutritionists at Stratford-upon-Avon, Professor Pickard said: "Man is an omnivore.

Anyone thinking of restricting their diet by becoming a vegetarian is potentially taking risks with their health

Professor Robert Pickard, British Nutrition Foundation

"Anyone thinking of restricting their diet by becoming a vegetarian is potentially taking risks with their health."

Professor Pickard said the gut contained a kilogram of bacteria to help digest the wide variety of food present in an omnivorous diet.

He said there was evidence that leaving the bacteria idle as a result of a restricted diet can make it easier for disease to take hold.

"Evolutionary science tells us that man emerged from an insect-eating group of mammals whose adaptability was greatly accelerated by the adoption of an omnivorous diet.

"Man's teeth, jaws and gut have evolved to deal with a mixture of meat and vegetables."

Third way diet

Professor Pickard said that this `third way' diet provided primitive man with a high-energy food intake making him a more effective species.

This gave him more time to think and stay ahead of competitor species.

"Meat should now play a central part in any person's diet.

A meat-free diet is commonly chosen by top class athletes precisely because it improves one's health

Catherine Grainger, Vegan Society

"It provides iron for the blood, vitamin D for the bones, and proteins and fatty acids for growth.

"Its role has emerged as a result of million of years of evolution. It is also highly likely that red meat contains many other beneficial nutrients that we do not yet fully understand."

Ian Tokelove, a spokesman for the Food Commission, set up to provide information on healthy diets to the consumer, refused to back Professor Pickard.

He said: "Meat does have a role to play in the diet, but it has been shown not to be essential.

"The body is adaptable and vegetarians actually have a healthy diet."

Vegetarian response

The Vegetarian Society said comments such as those made by Professor Pickard made many vegetarians worry about their diet - unjustifiably.

Sam Calvert, head of public affairs, said: "There is not cause for concern. There are three million vegetarians in the UK, and it can clearly be seen that vegetarianism is not have a detrimental effect on their health - in fact research shows that it has a positive effect."

Ms Calvert quoted a study published in the British Medical Journal in 1994 which showed vegetarians were 20% less likely than meat eaters to die before the age of 65 - and 40% less likely to die prematurely from cancer.

Catherine Grainger, of the Vegan Society, said Professor Pickard's comments contradicted advice from the World Health Organization, and the UK and US governments, who all recommend reducing consumption of foods high in saturated fats and cholesterol in favour high fibre, plant-based foods

"Professor Pickard's suggestion that meat should play a central part in any person's diet is outrageous given the wealth of scientific evidence showing that vegetarians and vegans are healthier than meat-eaters."

"Not only does a meat-free diet easily provide all the nutrients necessary for good health - including iron, protein, calcium, fatty acids and vitamin D - it is also commonly chosen by top class athletes and health care professionals precisely because it improves one's health."

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