AS new research suggests vegetarians are a third less likely to suffer from heart disease, vegetarians and meat eaters argue the case for the health benefits of their diets.

As the horsemeat scandal rages, many meat eaters will be wondering exactly what they've been consuming. And if you're a vegetarian, recent events will probably leave you more convinced than ever that you made the right choice.

New research has shown that vegetarians are a third less likely to suffer from heart disease than meat eaters, statistics that will make a meat-free diet a more attractive proposition for some.

However, the meat industry is eager to point out that vegetarians may be low in certain essential vitamins and minerals, and that eating lean red meat is an important part of a healthy diet.

But do we really need meat to be healthy, or is the modern human better suited to a vegetarian diet?

Healthy heart A new study from the University of Oxford has found that the risk of heart disease, the biggest killer in the UK, is 32% lower in vegetarians than people who eat meat and fish.

The study tracked almost 45,000 volunteers from throughout the 1990s until 2009, and found that vegetarians had lower blood pressures and cholesterol levels than non-vegetarians, as well as lower body mass index (BMI) and fewer cases of diabetes.

Dr Francesca Crowe, lead author of the study, explains: "Most of the difference in risk is probably caused by effects on cholesterol and blood pressure, and shows the important role of diet in the prevention of heart disease."

Vote veggie The Vegetarian Society suggests horsemeat and health factors may have combined to make a meat-free diet more of a consideration for some people.

"This year hasn't started well for meat eaters," says the society's spokesperson, Liz O'Neill.

"First horsemeat is found in certain beef products, and then a new report indicates meat eaters have a much higher risk of heart disease than vegetarians.

"Throw in higher rates of obesity, high blood pressure and a number of different cancers and it's hard to see why anyone still wants to eat meat."

She says many health studies have shown positive outcomes for vegetarians, and points out: "The new study findings make it clear that relying on meat for your daily nutritional needs means taking a significant unnecessary risk with your health."

Recent figures from the Office for National Statistics indicate that 2% of UK adults - around 1.2 million people - are vegetarian, and O'Neill stresses that a balanced vegetarian diet will meet their nutritional requirements.

"This new study clearly shows that being vegetarian is, regardless of other factors, simply better for your heart," she says.

"If you don't smoke, then eating meat may be one of the biggest risk factors in your lifestyle, whereas a balanced vegetarian diet is delicious, good for the planet and good for people."

Mine's meat Yet meat has been "a staple part of the human diet since the dawn of mankind", insists the Meat Advisory Panel (MAP), an expert body funded by the meat industry.

It points out that Government dietary surveys show some UK diets are "worryingly low" in certain nutrients commonly found in meat, such as vitamin A, vitamin D, iron, magnesium, zinc, selenium and potassium, and that red meat nutrients play a role in supporting cognitive function, immune health and addressing iron deficiency.

MAP spokesperson Dr Carrie Ruxton, a registered dietician, points out: "Other studies have found that the benefits attributed to the vegetarian lifestyle are linked to increased levels of physical activity, no smoking and little alcohol, as well as positive dietary attributes such as more fruit, vegetables, beans and pulses.

"There's no reason why meat eaters couldn't access these benefits too if they also ate high quality, lean red meats."

Ruxton says that while meat is indeed higher in saturated fats and lower in the healthier omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids, many vegetarians continue to eat cheese, butter and cream which are all high in saturated fat.

While vegan diets, which contain no animal products at all, tend to be low in all fats, Ruxton points out that opportunities for getting enough vitamin B12 and B6, iron, vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids are all reduced, as these nutrients are mainly found in animal products.

Ruxton admits that vegetarian diets are perfectly healthy as long as a variety of foods are eaten, but warns it's harder to reach certain recommended nutrient intakes, although this can sometimes be overcome by taking a supplement or consuming vitamin C-rich foods to boost iron absorption.

She adds: "Vegetarian diets are a lifestyle choice and aren't necessary for optimal health.

"Moderate amounts of lean red meat can be enjoyed within a diet which is also rich in fruit, vegetables, beans, pulses and oily fish. This way you get the best of both worlds."

Healthy balanced diet British Dietetic Association spokesperson Helen Bond says that while research shows the benefits of vegetarianism, everyone should be trying to eat a healthy balanced diet, and that can include both meat and non-meat.

"We know fruits and vegetables are associated with lower risk of lots of diseases including cancer and heart disease," she says.

"But I don't think meat is bad, it's just a question of what meat you're choosing."

The Department of Health recommends adults should eat no more than 70g of cooked red or processed meat a day - equivalent to three rashers of bacon or three slices of thin ham.

"Red meat is still important for iron - it's much better absorbed from red meat - zinc, selenium, B vitamins and vitamin D," explains Bond.

"My advice would be to cut down on processed meat, and follow the Department of Health guidelines on red meat.

"Go for leaner cuts, and if you can see fat on it, cut it off."

She says that if a balanced diet is eaten, the risk of vitamin and mineral deficiencies should be no greater for vegetarians than for meat eaters.

And she advises that supplements should only be taken if they're really needed, pointing out that nutrients from food are much better absorbed than those from supplements.

"Overall, a healthy balanced diet is what's important, whether that includes meat or not," she stresses.

"Just be aware that you're eating from the right food groups, as outlined in the eatwell plate."