Veggie body-builders shrug off idea that real men must have meat

Vanessa Thorpe learns that you can eat tofu and still be a tough guy
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The Independent Online
Vegetarians can take heart. They can be beefy without recourse to beef itself - and veggie body-builders are the living, glistening proof.

This weekend the nation's brawnier tofu fans have rallied in an attempt to undermine the findings of a London doctor who claims that men on a meat-free diet find it harder to keep fit.

Research carried out by Dr Richard Petty of the Wellman Clinic has led him to suggest that a vegetarian male's low intake of iron will result at the very least in a "pallid" appearance.

But prize-winning body-builder Stuart Hamilton, who weighs 14 stone in his lycra suit, constitutes a hefty obstacle in the path of Dr Petty's projections.

"My vegetarianism has made no difference to my success at all," argues Mr Hamilton. "I don't use steroids and I don't even take supplements. I just eat a lot of rice and vegetables. I also drink six pints of milk a day."

Mr Hamilton, now 33 and still in competition shape after the recent Mr South-East contest, became a vegetarian on moral grounds three years ago. "I used to cringe when I was in the same room as an uncooked joint of meat," he recalls.

The solution was a sound diet. "Unfortunately vegetarians, like most people, don't know much about what they are eating, so if someone stops eating meat they just substitute fatty things like cheese," he says.

For the staff of The Vegetarian Society, Dr Petty's conclusions are not only an insult to their members, they actually pose a danger to men's health according to the society's nutritionist, Steve Connor. "This is a bizarre finding which has to be taken with a large dose of low sodium salt," he explains. "The idea that men need more iron is positively frightening. Iron is really not the issue for men. It is needed by kids and pregnant women. There is actually a risk that a man can have too much iron in his system and that it could be related to heart diseases and cancer."

The argument centres on the fact that the iron contained in plants is less easily absorbed by the body than the iron in meat unless it is eaten in conjunction with vitamin C.

A nutritionist from the opposing camp, Amanda Wynne of the Meat and Livestock Commission, stresses that while it is feasible for a vegetarian to be super-fit, it is considerably easier to organise with the aid of the occasional chop or spare rib. "While you might take in 20 per cent of the iron in some meat you would only absorb 2 per cent of that contained in spinach," she says.

Despite such observations, more and more men are taking up vegetarianism, with the Vegetarian Society proudly noting a 37 per cent increase in converts since 1993 - the result of health education and a wider range of choice at the supermarket.

While vegetarian men may have lower levels of haemoglobin, a spokesman for the society strongly denied this had any effect on their health. "Dr Petty's suggestions are taking us back to the dark ages, to all the myths about red-blooded males," he said. "You may as well tell vegetarians that they aren't getting enough action."