Vegetarians International Voice for Animals

11: An Apple A Day

For generations we have been brought up with the belief that eating meat and fish is synonymous with good health. During the Second World War, the Ministry of Food provided children with cod liver oil and malt free of charge and mothers would impoverish themselves in order to get a bit of extra meat ‘off the ration’. However, there wasn’t much to be had. The meat ration at the end of the war was the few ounces that 1s 6d (6p) could buy per person per week while the butter ration was 2oz per person plus 4oz of margarine. Cheese was limited to 2oz, as was bacon (or ham). Sugar was also on ration, as were sweets, while fresh fruit and vegetables were not. There was also not much fish around. Strange, then, that people increasingly look back with nostalgia to this time and talk about it as one of the healthiest periods of our history.

On the basis of this experience you would think that a simple correlation is in order - less meat and fewer fish and dairy products means a healthier life! It’s true, but vested interests have purposely blurred that message for decades.

As a campaigner and now as Director of the Vegetarian Society, I was better placed than most to get at the truth, as I had access to much of the scientific research which showed conclusively that a vegetarian diet was healthier than one based on meat.

The publication which first opened my eyes to the wealth of evidence linking meat with disease was a book by Peter Cox. Peter’s Why You Don’t Need Meat (Thorsons, 1986) made the health arguments accessible and easy to understand for the first time. He goes into even more detail in his latest book, Peter Cox’s Guide to Vegetarian Living (Bloomsbury, 1995). But health had never been the motivating factor behind my vegetarian beliefs. It took a personal tragedy in 1988 to make me reexamine that position.

The sister of an extremely close friend was diagnosed as having stomach cancer and the prognosis was saddening - only weeks to live. She had three teenage daughters and a very close family and the scale of the collective grief was enormous. The sense of injustice, of impotence and of disbelief was all-powerful. There was a need to apportion blame, to seek out a culprit, as if by so doing a magical key would be unearthed which would reverse the relentless progress of the disease. I was present when the surgeon was asked, almost imploringly, whether there was anything known about the causes of cancer. It was the compassionate but matter-of-fact way he replied that I found almost disturbing. One thing they knew for certain, he said, was that there was an inescapable correlation between eating meat and stomach cancer. Other factors played a part, such as stress and smoking, but there was a clear link with diet.

I felt as though a massive deception had been perpetrated, not by him but by someone, somewhere. I asked myself why this wasn’t public knowledge, why it wasn’t emblazoned across the front pages of tabloid newspapers, why the official line was still one of denial - and still is. The woman who lay dying had fed her family meat as frequently as possible, genuinely believing that she was doing the best she could for them.

Unfortunately I have now learnt to be much more cynical about the motivation of the Government as a result of my search for the truth about diet and health. Almost every political decision concerning agriculture places meat in the ascendancy. In May 1990, for example, the then Minister of Agriculture, John Gummer, declared in his speech at the International Meat Trade Association, which was reported on the front page of The Times, that vegetarianism is ‘wholly unnatural’ and explicitly anti-God:

I consider meat to be an essential part of the diet. The bible tells us that we are the masters of the fowl of the air and the beasts of the field and we very properly eat them. If the Almighty had wanted us to have three stomachs like grass-eating cattle [sic; they have four], I am sure he could have arranged it.

Meanwhile, an array of posters and expensive press and TV advertising, partly paid for by the Government-backed Meat and Livestock Commission, proclaimed: ‘Meat to Live’- giving a pretty clear message in defiance of the truth.

In 1995, the propaganda continued, with millions of pounds being spent on the cloyingly sentimental advertising campaign: ‘Meat - the language of love!’ And the MLC is still going into schools with expensively produced materials, including an interactive computer programme based around four young people setting up in business to - yes, you’ve guessed it - open a hamburger restaurant.

None of the information in these promotions gives even the slightest indication that meat is linked with the two biggest killers in the Western world - cancer and heart disease. It also fails to mention the essential nutrients which are completely absent from meat. Confusion and public relations gloss are being used to obscure the truth for the benefit of vested interests. And it is costing lives.

In the British Medical Journal in 1994, the interim results of a massive piece of research were published. It is known as ‘the Oxford study’ and it looked at 11,000 people over a 13-year period with the simple purpose of investigating the health consequences of a vegetarian diet. In brief, the findings were that vegetarians stand around a 40 per cent less chance of developing any kind of cancer, have about 30 per cent less coronary heart disease and have a 20 per cent lower premature mortality than meat eaters - in simple language, they live longer!

However, despite being one of the largest and most thorough studies undertaken, with unequivocal results, the Oxford study still states:

The results do not justify advice to exclude meat since several features of a vegetarian diet, apart from not eating meat, might reduce the risk.

That is to say, it’s not certain what it is that’s making the difference. It might not be something in the meat that causes disease but something in the vegetarian diet that prevents it. Also:

Our data do not provide justification for encouraging meat eaters to change to a vegetarian diet. However, they do confirm that those who have chosen to do so might expect reductions in premature mortality due to cancer and possibly ischaemic heart disease.

Then there is this little conclusion:

Dietary change may be a key determinant of the reduction in total mortality. Current recommendations in most Western countries advise people to adopt many of the attributes of a vegetarian diet but not to advise excluding meat. This advice seems appropriate in the light of our results.

And long live the status quo!

The fact remains that thousands of lives could be saved and incalculable suffering could be ended right now by advising people to change to a vegetarian or vegan diet - not tomorrow or next week, but now. There is a mass of other research to support this recommendation.

The study didn’t look at the effects of simply cutting down on meat, but it didn’t stop them from recommending that option as the way forward. There was no justification for such a recommendation.

Does it really matter if there is some hidden ingredient, some obscure nutrient which no one has identified, lurking behind the eyes of a King Edward potato?

In a letter to the Minister of Health in August 1995, a Viva! contact asked why, in view of current knowledge, they were not promoting vegetarianism and she quoted the Oxford study. The reply was fascinating. It said that the study had not made allowances for the difference in people’s lifestyles and the fact that vegetarians are less likely to drink and smoke. Because of this, the findings were not particularly relevant.

In fact, the study did make allowances for this:

In this study, the 40 per cent reduction in cancer mortality in non-meat eaters ... could not be explained by differences in smoking habits, obesity and socioeconomic status.

There are two conclusions that can be drawn from the Government’s reply: either it is incompetent or it is wilfully misleading people over matters of life and death.

Increasingly, when I appear on radio or television, a nutritionist from a supposedly independent body is asked for an opinion as to whether a vegetarian or vegan diet is healthy. Their answer usually starts: ‘A vegetarian diet can be healthy but...’ In those few words all the doubts necessary to discredit it are sown in the mind of the audience.

The nutritionist is often from the British Nutrition Foundation, which is, in fact, not independent but a food industry body whose chairman, Mr David A. Tate, has made it quite clear, in the BNF’s annual report, what he thinks of scientific findings which link cancer and other health scares to meat:

Unfortunately, I do not believe that the future will see an end to the publication of views which seem calculated to give the impression that food is ultimately life threatening. Statistics and league tables of premature deaths from heart disease or cancer linked to some dietary attribute tend to omit a reminder of other possible confounding factors.

BNFs members include hamburger giants McDonald’s Restaurants Ltd, turkey producers Bernard Matthews Plc, the Meat and Livestock Commission, Mars Ltd, Whitbread Plc, British Sugar Plc, Cadbury Ltd, Coca Cola Great Britain Ltd, Trebor Bassett Ltd and Tate & Lyle Plc - meat, meat, meat, sugar, beer, sugar, sugar, sugar, sugar and sugar.

I give this account to illustrate the difficulty in obtaining accurate, objective information about food and its links with health. The vested interests are extremely powerful and use techniques polished to perfection by the tobacco industry. The health risks of tobacco have been known since the 1950s and it is now the biggest avoidable killer in the world. Yet little is done to deter young people from taking up smoking - not even the banning of all advertising - and you can’t get more cynical than that.

So, just what is the link between vegetarianism and health? There is overwhelming research to prove that vegetarians are infinitely healthier than meat eaters and live longer. Conversely, there are no diseases which afflict vegetarians but not meat eaters. That’s a pretty powerful starting-point.

In the 1940s, the prevailing view was that animal protein held the answer to health and the more you ate the better. Nutritionists have been backpedalling from that piece of misinformation ever since. Now, the 100 leading health bodies from around the world, including Britain’s Committee on the Medical Aspects of Food Policy (COMA) and the World Health Organization (WHO), offer very different advice - cut down on animal fats (which includes meat of all kinds and dairy products) and eat more complex carbohydrates (bread, pasta, potatoes, rice), fibre, fresh fruit, vegetables, cereals and pulses.

The eminent British Medical Association clearly states in its 1986 report Diet, Nutrition and Health: ‘Vegetarians have lower rates of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, large bowel disorder and cancers, and gallstones. Cholesterol levels tend to be lower.’ It goes on to say that vegetarian and vegan diets provide all the nutrients required for a healthy diet.

Some of these bodies have got as close as they can to saying ‘Go vegan’ but none has had the courage to actually say it. Why? Because it would be rubbished by Governments and food industries who are simply not prepared to jeopardize revenues with such a radical piece of advice.

But still the myth about animal protein hangs on. Tell someone you’re about to turn vegetarian and they’ll immediately become an expert on nutrition: ‘What about protein? You’re going to be seriously short of protein!’

Let’s be absolutely clear. Protein is important because it’s responsible for growth, for repairing tissue and protecting against infection. Fortunately, it’s present, to a greater or lesser degree, in most foods and those with high concentrations include soya products such as tofu, soya milk, veggieburgers and textured vegetable protein (TVP). It is in cereals such as rice and pasta, some dairy products including cheese, milk and eggs, and in nuts and seeds. Don’t worry about protein - it is almost impossible to go short. In fact you have a much better chance of winning first prize in the National Lottery than you do of meeting a vegetarian or vegan suffering from protein deficiency.

Protein is made up of different amino acids and some foods contain all the body needs while others contain only some of them. Meat contains them all, while eating a combination of vegetable foods combines different amino acids into a ‘complete’ form. The different foods can be eaten over time and don’t need to be combined in one meal.

Far from worrying about lack of protein, there’s much more reason to worry about too much of the stuff - animal protein, at any rate. It can damage your health. The most obvious example is that of the disease osteoporosis. It is also another example of industry’s misinformation - in this case the dairy industry.

Osteoporosis is a condition which results in a loss of bone mass - the calcium which forms bones is reduced and weakened by being excreted out of the body in urine. It can result in easily broken bones and what used to be known as ‘widow’s stoop’, where the chin drops lower and lower, eventually touching the chest, while the back becomes humped. There is some truth in the name - osteoporosis, or porous bones, tends to affect older, post-menopausal women, the category in which, I suppose, most widows fall. Many will not even know they have it until they break a bone, but every year in the UK, over 50,000 women break a hip because of osteoporosis and many of them die. In fact more women die from this cause than from cancers of the cervix, uterus and breast combined.

The causes of osteoporosis are complex and involve changes in the hormonal levels responsible for making new bone and absorbing old bone. Oestrogen is part of this balancing act and following the menopause less is produced.

In order to avoid osteoporosis, women are encouraged to consume lots of calcium-rich milk and dairy products. This advice ignores world-wide evidence. Eskimos have one of the highest intakes of calcium in the world, yet also have one of the highest incidences of osteoporosis. For the Chinese, on the other hand, the situation is reversed - they have one of the lowest intakes of dietary calcium and osteoporosis is rare.

The missing link is animal protein. Eskimos eat huge amounts of animal protein and their high calcium intake comes largely from fish bones. The Chinese eat comparatively small amounts of animal protein and almost no dairy products. There is a direct correlation between the intake of animal protein and a loss of calcium. The same link does not exist with vegetable protein. The process is complex, but what is thought to happen is that animal protein produces an acid overload which is neutralized by the release of stored calcium from the bones before being excreted in urine. The same acid overload does not happen when the protein is from a vegetable source.

Most people in the UK have heard of osteoporosis for the simple reason that the milk marketing industry produced a series of huge street posters which stated that milk could prevent it. This campaign played on people’s fears, but milk, instead of being part of the cure, was part of the problem.

The real prevention, according to new US research, has nothing to do with the milkman. It identifies boron, a trace element, as being extremely active in preventing calcium loss. By introducing it into the diet of a group of post-menopausal women, their calcium loss was reduced by 40 per cent. No boron is found in meat or in dairy produce, but it is in apples, pears, grapes, nuts, leafy vegetables and legumes.

A possible lack of calcium also often worries mothers when their children give up meat. Strange, since meat contains little or no calcium. Vegans get all the calcium they need from leafy green vegetables, pulses, nuts and seeds - particularly almonds and sesame seeds. Also, some soya products, such as soya milk, can now be obtained fortified with calcium. Vegetarians obviously obtain calcium from milk, but it is these vegan foods which are the healthiest and which discourage osteoporosis.

Apart from protein and calcium, it is often claimed that a vegetarian diet lacks vitamin B12. B12 is an important vitamin, essential for the development of blood cells and nerve function, and a lack of it can lead to a collapse of the nervous system and eventually death. However, the liver can store it for years and only minute traces are needed - the equivalent to one-millionth of a gram per day. So you can pig out one day and eat none for days after.

Vegetarians get all the B12 they need from dairy products, while vegans are amply supplied by fortified foods such as soya milk, TVP and most breakfast cereals. Yeast extract such as Marmite, Vecon and Vegemite is also a good source, as is the large range of yeast-based spreads and patés. Vegans do not need to take vitamin B12 supplements - or go on about them ad nauseam.

The vitamin is produced by micro-organisms such as yeasts, bacteria, moulds and algae and it is widely present in the soil. The reason why it is found in meat is because of the ingestion by animals of small amounts of soil containing B12 when they are grazing or rooting. It was in exactly this way that our ancestors obtained the vitamin, before the supermarkets started sanitizing their carrots and before a touch of soil in cabbage became reason for contacting the Environmental Health Officer.

In fact, every vitamin you need can be obtained from a vegetarian and vegan diet, while meat is lacking several of the most important. Even those it does contain are not necessarily of the right kind. Take vitamin A, for example. It is one of the important protectors against disease - but only the vitamin A obtained from vegetable foods. It is present in meat as retinol, which can be extremely toxic in high concentrations, such as in the liver of cattle, and can even damage the human foetus, which is why pregnant women are now advised to avoid eating liver. The vegetable version is converted by the body from a substance called beta-carotene, which is found in a wide range of fruits and vegetables. Beta-carotene, together with vitamins C and E, has such a huge and positive impact on human health that it ranks as one of the great medical discoveries and I’ll come on to that later (see pp. 136-138).

Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) grows in importance the more we find out about it and its central role in the functioning of the human body and its immune system. We are one of the few species whose bodies cannot synthesize it and because we can’t store it either, a regular intake is vital. Fortunately, it occurs in a huge range of fruits and vegetables, so vegetarians and vegans are better placed than most to get their daily intake. Interestingly, there is no vitamin C in meat and dairy products.

Other essential vitamins almost absent from meat are D, K and E. They are all present in a vegetarian or vegan diet.

Because Viva! has such a big youth interest, I am often asked questions about teenage girls and their susceptibility to anaemia due to lack of iron in the diet. The view of some ‘independent’ nutritionists is that meat is the best source of iron because the iron from vegetables is more difficult for the body to absorb and therefore adolescence is not the best time to change to a vegetarian diet. However, iron is present in a whole range of plants and is made more easily absorbable by the vitamin C in fruit and vegetables - something which vegetarians and vegans tend to eat a lot of!

The truth is that iron deficiency is largely a female condition, linked to menstruation and affecting one in five of all women of childbearing age, regardless of their diet. One of the most respected medical bodies in the world, the British Medical Association, categorically stated in their report Diet, Nutrition and Health that ‘iron deficiency is no more common’ in vegetarians and vegans than in meat eaters. Research on British vegans by the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Surrey also concluded, in a paper published in the British Journal of Nutrition, that iron levels ‘were normal in all the vegans’ and that ‘pregnancy in Caucasian vegans and the health of children reared on vegan diets appear to be essentially normal.’

Apart from natural loss of iron through menstruation, it is often a problem of absorption, for meat eaters as well as vegetarians, that causes a deficiency. Good sources of iron include dark green leafy vegetables, tofu, wholemeal bread, pasta, dried fruit, pistachio and cashew nuts, pulses (e.g. baked beans, peas, butter beans, broad beans, chick peas), fortified breakfast cereals, pumpkin seeds, hummus, lentils, sesame seeds, jacket potatoes, molasses, oats and cocoa (a good excuse to eat plain chocolate!) Remember to eat foods containing vitamin C (in most green veg., potatoes, tomatoes, citrus fruits and juice) at the same time for considerably better absorption.

Another big misconception surrounds carbohydrates. At one time they were popularly seen as the slimmer’s enemy, one of the primary causes of obesity and to be avoided. That couldn’t have been more wrong. Carbohydrates are one of the most essential ingredients of our diet.

They break down into three groups - simple, complex and dietary fibre. The least valuable are the simple carbohydrates - sugars found naturally in foods such as fruit and milk or as the refined version in table sugar, sweets and so on.

Complex carbohydrates are the ones that we are now being encouraged to include as the basis of our diet and they are entirely plant-based - rice, bread, pasta, pulses, wheat, barley, millet, oats and buckwheat. The other big source, of course, is potatoes - or yams, sweet potatoes and casava. Complex carbohydrates are the primary source of our energy.

The third carbohydrate, dietary fibre, is the indigestible part of all the different plant foods we eat. It contains no nutrients but is the vital element which allows the bowels to function properly, reducing the chances of colon cancer. With wonderful visual imagery, fibre is often referred to as the broom which sweeps the bowels clean. It puts a whole new light on the song ‘Hey ho, hey ho, it’s off to work we go...’! Critical to human health, it is another vital dietary component which is completely lacking in meat.

Fats and oils are another important part of the diet, responsible for repairing tissue, manufacturing hormones, providing essential fatty acids and carrying some vitamins. However, not all fats are desirable or necessary and the least needed and most harmful is saturated fat, the type found in meat (even the lean parts), lard and dairy produce.

Saturated fats tend to be solid at room temperature such as butter and lard - and unsaturated fats tend to be liquid - such as olive or sunflower oil - but too much of either makes you fat.

Saturated fats are linked with a whole range of diseases, in particular heart disease and cancer, and we do not need them in the diet. Something else we don’t need to eat is yet another product of meat, fish and dairy produce: cholesterol.

Cholesterol is a sterol and despite the bad press it has received in recent years, it is essential for life. It is used for making cell walls, hormones, vitamin D and bile acids, but we don’t need to eat it. It is manufactured by the liver and intestinal cells and, according to a growing number of medical authorities, no other source is necessary. In fact, eating foods high in cholesterol and saturated fats increases blood cholesterol to dangerous levels. Excess cholesterol furs up the arteries, which can eventually lead to a total blockage which cuts off the blood supply. If the arteries supplying the heart are blocked, a heart attack is the result; if the arteries supplying the brain are blocked, you suffer a stroke. Cholesterol levels are considerably lower in vegetarians.

Gallstones are another problem. Made mainly of solidified cholesterol, they can lead to inflammation and gangrene of the gall bladder, causing great pain. The British Medical Journal states that gallstones occur twice as frequently in meat eaters as in vegetarians.

As we in the West have elevated meat eating almost to a religion and the majority of the rest of the world, for reasons of culture or poverty, simply doesn’t eat meat on anything like the same scale, we provide an excellent human laboratory. We, the privileged, the principal users of the world’s resources and consumers of animal flesh, account for only one fifth of the world’s population, yet we have a half of all the world’s cancers. One in three of us will be diagnosed as having cancer at some time in our lives. And the situation is worsening.

A huge amount of time and money has been spent in trying to find an explanation for this disturbing statistic and, if possible, develop a cure. In a commercial world, a cure which involves a pill, a potion or a treatment is always preferable to a change in lifestyle, because pills can be patented, packaged and sold. However, not only has the magical cure proved elusive, but also the search for it has blinded people to the way in which they can take control of their own lives and reduce their own risks.

The Oxford study finding that vegetarians get 40 per cent fewer cancers was only one of many studies from around the world which have come to similar conclusions. They provide a huge incentive to take up a vegetarian - or, better still, vegan diet because all the evidence is now one way, building a conclusive picture of animal protein as a cause of cancer.

Every five years, the US Government’s Dietary Guidelines are revised and in 1995, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) made representation to the Federal Advisory Committee, the body charged with the task. As part of their submission that a vegetarian diet is important in reducing the risk of many diseases, they carried out a review of research and published work from around the world. Their findings were little short of staggering.

They found that the cancer rate amongst vegetarians is between 25 and 50 per cent lower than in the general population. Like any serious study, they took account of lifestyles - drinking, smoking, exercise, body weight - and compared like with like. In a country where 1.2 million people are diagnosed with cancer every year and 526,000 die of it, the implications of this are enormous. A national change to a vegetarian diet could result in a reduction of over 250,000 deaths annually from this one disease alone. The economic implications are almost as awesome - a halving of the $35 billion direct medical costs for treating cancer.

An important feature of this detailed research was the discovery that the increased consumption of fruit and vegetables common in a vegetarian diet makes a big contribution to reducing risks. However, it doesn’t fully account for it. The implication is that while a vegetarian diet does have great health benefits, there is something in a meat-based diet which actually increases the risk of cancer.

The benefits of vegetarianism are just as great with that other huge epidemic - heart disease. It is now the number one killer in the industrialized world and Britain is the capital of it. One in three men and one in four women will die of it - 468 of them every 24 hours. The evidence is so overwhelming that vegetarians, and particularly vegans, are so much less at risk that their diets should be available on the NHS. One study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, which looked at nearly 5,000 British vegetarians over seven years, found them to be 50 per cent less at risk from heart disease than meat eaters. A study of lifelong vegans, this time published in the British Medical Journal came up with a figure of 57 per cent less risk.

In the United States the problem is hardly less acute. Approximately one million people have a heart attack every year, 45 per cent of whom are under 65. Again, there are enormous economic implications for this epidemic, with the direct medical costs amounting to $40 billion. The cost in pain, discomfort, fear and grief is, of course, incalculable.

In their submission to the US Government, the PCRM also examined the link between heart disease and vegetarianism by reviewing the available literature. Their findings are again little short of astonishing. Vegetarians, they discovered, are between 25 and 50 per cent less likely to die of heart disease than meat eaters. Again, all the studies compare like with like.

Part and parcel of coronary heart disease, as well as stroke and cerebral haemorrhage, is of course atherosclerosis - clogged up arteries. And here again the link with meat is indisputable. The good news is that a low-fat, vegetarian diet helps to reverse it. It also helps with hypertension, or high blood pressure, which makes the heart work harder to pump blood around the body.

A Swedish study, based on the simple premise of substituting the meat-based diet of those with hypertension for a strict vegan diet, produced some amazing results. At the end of the trial period they found that of the 26 patients, 20 had given up their medication entirely and six had reduced their medication - mostly by half. Fifty per cent felt much ‘better’ and 30 per cent said they felt ‘completely recovered’. Blood cholesterol levels dropped by an average of 15 per cent and health authorities estimated their savings on drugs and hospitalization at £1,000 per patient.

In 1990, what must be considered a medical breakthrough took place with a study specifically structured to evaluate the effect of a vegan diet on reversing the effects of clogged up arteries in coronary heart disease. Two groups were studied, the first being placed on a diet of fruit, vegetables, grains, legumes and soya bean products, and the second, control group, continuing with their usual diet. The extent of the arterial blockages was measured in both groups. After one year, the blockages of 18 of the 22 people on the vegan diet had reduced in size, while the blockages of two thirds of the control group had increased. Subsequent studies have confirmed this extraordinary result - that damage caused by coronary heart disease can be reversed simply through diet.

The studies quoted here relating to cancer and heart disease are only a small selection of a huge and increasing volume of evidence which consistently points to a vegetarian diet as being the prerequisite for good health.

In 1989, initial results were announced from a huge study which looked at real people in real life situations. Its findings were so conclusive that you would have thought the world could not ignore it. A combined Chinese-British-American effort, it looked at the health and eating habits of 6,500 Chinese and became known as the China study. Headlines in the New York Times on 8 May of that year summed up its findings: ‘Huge Study of Diet Indicts Fat and Meat’. In short, it found that the greatest single influence on the growth of degenerative diseases such as coronary heart disease, cancer and diabetes seemed to be the amount of animal protein eaten - the more you eat, the greater your risk.

In an interview in the New York Times, also on 8 May, Dr T. Colin Campbell, of Cornell University, who was in charge of the American contribution, summed up his feelings on the findings: ‘We’re basically a vegetarian species and should be eating a wide variety of plant foods and minimizing our intake of animal foods.’ We’re left with the question of why, if giving up meat is so effective, do Governments still steer clear of endorsing it? The answer lies within the power structures of society and industry.

In the US, the power of the National Rifle Association (NRA) is legendary and it has consistently managed to thwart any legislation which even hints at controlling firearms. The power of the livestock industry - and in the US that means the beef industry - is considered by many to be only second to the NRA. The clear link between ill health and meat eating has been so comprehensively ignored that up until 1995 the US Dietary Guidelines, which outline those foods which should be eaten to promote good health and those which are optional, made no mention of vegetarianism. It is the opinion of the PCRM that effective lobbying by meat interests was responsible for this.

The PCRM’s submission to the US Government was accompanied by a request to remove meat from the obligatory category and place it in the optional category. They didn’t succeed, but at least the Dietary Guidelines do now contain an extremely strong reference to vegetarianism:

...lacto-ovo vegetarians enjoy excellent health. Vegetarian diets are consistent with the Dietary Guidelines and can meet Recommended Daily Allowances for nutrients. Protein is not limited in vegetarian diets...

This is seen as a victory by the PCRM and a first and important step in establishing the enormous health advantages of a vegetarian diet.

In varying degrees, vegetarians are less likely to develop 60 or more diseases which, apart from those already mentioned, include asthma, angina, arthritis and rheumatism, constipation, diabetes, eczema, psoriasis and obesity.

So what is it about a plant-based diet that reduces the risk of disease and prolongs life? Low saturated fat and high fibre play a part and recent research has identified three other important ingredients. They are all vitamins and have been termed ‘antioxidants’.

You will know that rust can eat the paint off a car. That damage is caused by oxidation. A similar process harms the cells of your body. In fact, it is at least partly responsible for dozens of diseases.

Unless you have discovered how to live without breathing, you cannot escape the consequences of oxidation. It takes place whenever oxygen combines with another substance, as when you burn food for energy. You need oxygen, of course, for the same reason a car needs it - to help burn fuel for energy or power.

Whenever you breathe, exercise or digest food, your body produces potentially harmful agents called ‘free radicals’. Not a political group, free radicals are unstable molecules made by your body. In stable molecules, electrons usually associate in pairs. Normal body functions, however, can remove one electron in a pair. The remaining molecule with an unpaired electron is a free radical. The free radical tries to regain an electron and does so by snatching one from another molecule. This only creates another free radical, sparking a catastrophic chain reaction that eats away at your cells and damages the genetic material inside them. As stated by a nutritionist at the Solgar Nutritional Research Centre: ‘Imagine if someone scrambled all the area codes in your telephone book; all your calls would result in wrong numbers. In the same fashion, jumbled genetic codes in your cells make you vulnerable to any one of the sixty different serious physical illnesses.’

The free radical process takes place all the time, but cigarette smoke, air pollution, ultraviolet light and emotional stress generate more. You'll be relieved to hear that a vegetarian/vegan diet is a powerful ally in the fight against free radicals, because it contains a high number of antioxidants.

This newly discovered vitamin triumvirate (along with trace elements such as selenium and zinc) neatly mops up the out of control molecules and protects our cells against them. The three vitamins are the beta-carotene form of vitamin A, and vitamins C and E - none of which are in meat. But the number of different plant foods which contains them is enormous.

Vitamin C is in a whole range of fresh fruit and veg., but particularly citrus fruits, potatoes, tomatoes, cabbage and spinach. Beta-carotene is found in green, yellow and orange fruits and in vegetables such as broccoli, carrots and lettuce. Vitamin E is in most vegetable oils, nuts and seeds, avocado pears, olives, wholemeal bread, wheatgerm, garlic, dark green leafy vegetables, margarine, milk, butter and onions.

The implications of this dramatic discovery are only really just beginning to sink in, but it will eventually make it progressively more difficult for the meat interests to continue to spread confusion. In the past meat marketers have been allowed a total freedom, unrestrained even by truth. We are now involved in the massive task of slowly unpacking the web of deceit and misinformation which has been woven. We can then start to improve the health of the nation and reduce animal suffering.

By the way, if you have wondered why doctors haven’t joined in this condemnation of meat eating, in fact still tend to promote meat, then here’s your answer. Of the six or more years of training undertaken by UK doctors, nutrition accounts for only one day. In the US it is 2.5 hours - and they are optional.