Veggies who can't resist the pleasures of the flesh

The number of people renouncing meat has been increasing steadily for years, and accelerated in the wake of the BSE affair. But, according to a new survey, nearly half of adults who call themselves vegetarians secretly sneak off for burgers and bacon butties.

Research by Taylor Nelson AGB, a marketing company, concludes that while 7 per cent of British adults describe themselves as vegetarians, only 4 per cent have embraced an entirely meat-free diet. The research also reinforces previous surveys suggesting that a vegetarian diet is more attractive to women than to men. Five per cent of women said they abstained completely from meat and fish.

According to latest estimates, there are now three million vegetarians in Britain, which represents a 20 per cent increase over the past two years. Numbers are swelling by another 5,000 each week, with many new converts citing the beef scare as their main reason.

In addition, another 8 million people say they avoid red meat, while continuing to eat fish and poultry. Die-hard meat-eaters are to be found in strength north of the border; only 1.6 per cent of Scottish men have succumbed to vegetarianism.

While the vegetarian diet is more popular among women, the trend away from meat is reported to be rising more quickly among men. It is open to question, of course, whether these men give honest answers to surveys. It may be that they regularly nip out for a clandestine hamburger, unsated by a healthy supper of spinach leaves and pine nuts.

Doubts about the veracity of reports of numbers of vegetarians are also reinforced by the meat industry's oft-repeated contention that consumption of all types of meat has remained steady for the past 30 years.

It may be that those who "cheat", while attracting the opprobrium of dietary purists, are actually doing themselves a favour.

According to a report by a London clinic earlier this year, men who eat steak are healthier than those who eschew red meat.

The private Wellman Clinic said that men who ate little or no beef or lamb were prone to exhaustion and often had a pallid appearance. Steak lovers, on the other hand, had more iron in their blood and found it easier to stay fit.

But if the relative benefits to health of different diets remain disputable, the social advantages of vegetarianism appear more certain, particularly if the object of desire eats no meat.

About half of single vegetarians told researchers a few years ago that they would refuse even to consider going out with a meat-eater, no matter how desperate they were for company.

"You don't want to kiss someone with greasy pork fat on his mouth," sniffed one woman.