Cutting down on meat part-time can almost halve the risk of obesity, scientists have said.
According to a new study of 16,000 people, eating a few more meat-free meals and extra fruit and veg each week can help keep the weight off.
Previous studies have suggested strict vegetarians tend to be slimmer on the whole, but scientists have said this new “flexitarian” approach could be a more realistic way to get people to cut down on meat, rather than asking them to forego it altogether.
Professor Maira Bes-Rastrollo from the University of Navarra in Spain, who led the study, said: “It’s not a radical shift to a vegetarian diet, it’s more a gentle approximation. It’s not strict.”
Meat is believed to cause weight gain because it contains more fat and is denser in calories so people take in more calories before feeling full.
The study recorded the eating habits of 16,000 people over a period of ten years and found that 584 people had become obese, The Times reported.
It found that the more plants and less meat people ate, the less likely they were to become obese even after adjusting for age, starting weight and other unhealthy habits such as having a sedentary lifestyle.
Professor Bes-Rastrollo told the European Congress on Obesity in Porto, Portugal, that the risk of obesity was 15 per cent higher in the 20% of people with the most carnivorous diets compared with those in the middle fifth.
For those in the lowest fifth, the people who ate the least meat, the risk was 43 per cent lower.
The study found that even those in the most vegetarian group of the study were still consuming 142g of meat a day compared with 198g a day in the highest group.
But their diet contained twice as much fruit and vegetables, nuts and olive oil, reflecting a more “Mediterranean diet” which has been recommended previously as a way to protect the heart.
Previous studies have suggested that the growing consumption of meat contributes as much as sugar to the growing global prevalence of obesity.
A study by scientists at the University of Adelaide suggested that fats and carbohydrates can provide us with enough energy to meet the needs of most modern lifestyles and are digested faster than protein.
This means the body converts energy in meat into fat to be used later.
In 2015, the World Health Organisation said processed meats such as a bacon and sausages were “probably carcinogenic”.
The classification by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) gave it the highest possible carcinogen rating, shared with alcohol, asbestos, arsenic and cigarettes.
It estimated that 34,000 cancer deaths per year worldwide can be attributed to diets high in processed meat.