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Tuesday, November 18, 1997 Published at 07:57 GMT


Blame the fat, not the meat

Eating meat is not the problem - animal fat is the killer

Research conducted in Britain and New Zealand has cast new light on an assertion frequently made by vegetarians that it is unhealthy to eat red meat.

The research shows that, with regard to heart disease at least, it is not the meat itself that poses any particular hazard. The real culprit is animal or dairy fat.

Vegetarians have a lesser rate of heart disease than meat eaters, a fact that has led many to believe that eating meat is unhealthy. To find out if that is really the case, British and New Zealand scientists have studied 11,000 vegetarians and partial vegetarians for a period of more than 13 years.

[ image: The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine]
The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
Dr Margaret Thorogood of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine says the study was started to look into the link between meat and heart disease.

"Because we had an interest in how diet affects the risk of heart disease and and cancer, we set up a group of people who were vegetarian, and a comparison group of people who did eat meat. And we've been following them ever since to look at their health, and more specifically, what they die of."

The study confirmed that, in general, those who eat less meat have lower rates of heart disease than the general public. But when the diets of the 11,000 people were compared in a computer analysis with a similar number of non-vegetarians it was clear, says Dr Thorogood, that meat itself was not the culprit.

"What comes out of this very strongly is that it's really the total intake of animal fat. Now if you're a meat eater, then about 25% of your animal fat comes from meat. So it's obviously important. But if you cut meat out of your diet and replace it with other sources of animal fat, such as eggs and cheese, you're not going to make any difference to your risk of heart disease."

On the positive side, the researchers found that people who eat nuts five or more times a week enjoy a 23% reduction in death rates from all causes. And, as expected, the team also showed that it is healthy to keep your weight down.

But when every risk factor had been thoroughly analysed, animal fat and cholesterol came out as by far the most important dietary cause of heart disease.

Dr Thorogood's message is clear to both vegetarians and non-vegetarians: If you are a vegetarian and you are eating a kilogramme of cheese a day, then you could be doing yourself harm.

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