Lowering meat consumption in the UK would prevent about 45,000 premature deaths a year, according to a new study.
Oxford University's heart unit analysed the health consequences of a range of diets, concluding that eating meat no more than three times a week would prevent 31,000 deaths from heart disease, 9,000 deaths from cancer and 5,000 deaths from strokes each year, saving the NHS £1.2bn.
Friends of the Earth, which commissioned the research for its Healthy Planet Eating report, published today, said reducing meat consumption would also help slow the rates of climate change and deforestation.
Population growth, rising affluence and factory farming have helped to quadruple global meat consumption since 1961, with the average Briton now consuming 125kg of meat a year. According to the report, average intake represents 17 per cent of calories, a third more than the Food Standards Agency's recommendation of 12 per cent.
In health terms, red meat is strongly linked with bowel cancer, while meat and dairy products high in saturated fat are causes of obesity and heart disease. Environmentally, South American rainforests are being cleared – releasing climate change emissions – to grow animal feed and rear cattle for export to Europe.
The former Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, has urged the public to eat less meat, saying in a 2010 report: "Our diet is warming the planet. It is also damaging our health." He calculated that cutting consumption by 30 per cent would prevent 18,000 premature deaths a year.