Being vegetarian used to be associated with nut loaf-eating, sandal-wearing earth mothers; now one in eight follow a vegetarian or vegan diet. Peta Bee reports

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When I was a student, the joke went that you could tell a vegetarian by their pallid skin, their propensity for getting colds and viruses, for generally seeming unhealthy. I shared a house with a girl who fell firmly into that camp. We all tried to convince her that what she needed was a good roast dinner to reboot her vitamin levels.  After all, we used to say, the fact that the most famous vegetarian restaurant at the time was called Cranks says a lot. She was having none of it, and now I am beginning to believe that perhaps we were wrong and she was right.

With a record number of Britons following a  meat-free diet  all part of the time, vegetarians are no longer sniffily dismissed as sandal-wearing odd-bods, but as part of an ever-growing in-crowd that is prompting even the most committed carnivore to put down their steak knives. Latest statistics suggest that a record one in eight Britons now follow a vegetarian or vegan diet with millions more dabbling in the concept by adopting a ‘ flexitarian ’ – or veggie-vore - approach of cutting back on the amount of meat they eat.  Among 16-24 year-olds, the rise in vegetariansim is even more pronounced with 20 per cent avoiding meat for environmental or health reasons.

In 2016, the Veganuary campaign, now in its 3rd year, anticipates that more than 50,000 people will eschew meat, fish and dairy products for January at least. Designer Vivienne Westwood is among those to have signed up as is the Downton actor Peter Egan. Even those who feel they can’t go the whole hog are prepared to indulge in ‘Meat-free Mondays’, a campaign to start the week with an element of veggie-ness that is backed by Stella and Paul McCartney. And then there are people like myself who take regular ‘veggie breaks’ or frequently consume vegetarian food through choice. In my case, switching my weekly organic recipe box to the veggie version for three months out of every four is my nod towards the burgeoning trend.

As a ‘meat-reducer’, I am far from alone. A poll for the Food Development Assoication revealed that 86 per cent of Britons now eat meat-free meals once or twice a week. Friends tell me that they increasingly seek out vegetarian options on restaurant menus and have more meat-free meals than ever before. We are lured in part by the promise of a lighter load for our digestive systems resulting, we hope, in the kind of dewy, age-defying appearances exhibited by committed celebrity meat-avoiders like Ellie Goulding and Gwyneth Paltrow,  Ella Woodward of Deliciously Ella  fame and Venus Williams. With a huge army of food bloggers and celebrities backing the case for its immune-boosting, fat-fighting, conscience-easing benefits, vegetarianism has reinvented itself as a glamorous and glossy route to wellness.

Dr Sarah Schenker, a nutritionist and co-author of The Ageless Body (Bloomsbury, £8.99) says flexitarianism is the ideal option for the undecided. “A vegetarian diet can be very healthy especially if it is high in grains, vegetables and fruits,” she says. “It is so easy to be meat free, but sticking to meat-based meals once or twice a week is a compromise.” There’s certainly no shortage of places to indulge in veggie meals. According to Mintel, sales of meat-free products in supermarkets is expected to grow to more than £675 million this year. And a new generation of restaurants offering meat-free fine dining, like Vanilla Black, the Swiss chain Titbits and vegan restaurant Saf, have also helped to banish the sector’s reputation as flaky and uninteresting food. Top-end vegetarian eateries are opening around the country, the number of them up more than 50 per cent on 5 years ago. Even the fast food chains are getting in on the trend for serving up less flesh. Pizza Express has a vegan pizza on its regular menu while Yo! Sushi and the Handmade Burger Company are offering ‘Veganuary’ specials on their menus this month.

Of course, the overriding question is whether it is really doing us any good? Scientists are convinced it’s a healthy move. Vegetarian diets have been linked to lower risk for metabolic syndrome, diabetes and heart disease. And in a major study last year, Dr Michael Orlich of Loma Linda University in California, reported that meat avoiders could live longer lives with vegetarian subjects in his study exhibiting a 12 per cent lower risk of dying from any cause compared with meat eaters. These results demonstrate an "overall association of vegetarian dietary patterns with lower mortality," the researchers wrote. “They also demonstrate some associations with lower mortality of the pesco-vegetarian, vegan and lacto-vegetarian diets specifically compared with a non-vegetarian diet.”

In short, you feel better, you live longer? Must be worth a try.

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