The author, Andy Bond, research manager of the Vegetarian Society which produced the report, said it "proves beyond doubt that opting for a vegetarian diet is one of the healthiest decisions you can make."
The survey, Vegetarian Vitality, is aimed mainly at doctors and health professionals, who Mr Bond says receive "little or no nutritional training".
Despite its origins - the society was established in 1847 to promote vegetarianism - the survey is based on research published in leading academic and professional journals such as the British Medical Journal, the Lancet and other, specialist publications in the fields of cancer, heart research and epidemiology.
Many of the studies quoted are large-scale. One involving 6,115 British vegetarians and 5,015 meat-eaters found general mortality was 20 per cent lower among vegetarians, while deaths from cancer were 39 per cent lower and from heart disease 28 per centlower.
Another study found that levels of obesity were 5.4 per cent among vegetarians and 19.5 per cent among meat-eaters. Obesity is increasing in the West and makes people more liable to suffer from heart disease, diabetes and breast cancer. The report says that the fact that vegetarians are leaner than carnivores may be due to their lower overall energy intake, of which less is supplied by fat.
The publication of the report at a time of prolonged protest over farm animal welfare will add to the pressure on the meat trade.
There are now an estimated 3 million vegetarians in the United Kingdom, compared with 100,000 in 1945, and 2,000 people a week are said to have been switching to a meat-free diet over the last three years.
Stephen Connor, the society's campaigns director, said that the change to vegetarianism had been motivated by respect for animals, environmental awareness and concern for human health.
He added: "All the facts, figures and recommendations [in the report] come not from the realms of vegetarian fancy but from the pages of respected journals . . . The health benefits of a vegetarian diet are better documented than ever."
Among the explanations for the health benefits of vegetarianism are lower fat consumption, higher fibre content, trace substances in plants that may protect against cancers, high levels of anti-oxidant nutrients such as vitamins C and E which also appearto protect against cancer and heart disease, and a lower intake of animal protein - which may be linked to bone loss and osteoporosis.
The Meat and Livestock Commission claimed that the Vegetarian Society's survey was selective in its culling of sources and said the Governmment recommended that people should eat meat as part of a healthy balanced diet. "Ninety seven per cent of the people in this country still eat meat and I don't think they're going to take much notice of evangelical vegetarians banging on about how healthy they are," a spokesman added.
Meaty articles, page 22