Vegetarian eating one or two days a week is “good for everyone” while red meat is recommended two or three days a week, according to the updated guide to healthy eating from the State’s food watchdog.

Dairy products are needed for good bone health and to support growth but cheese should be eaten only occasionally, the guide from the Food Safety Authority of Ireland states.

Processed meats should be avoided due to high salt, preservatives and fat content, and the grilling, frying or barbecuing of meats at high temperatures should be avoided because it can create a compound that has been linked to cancer.

Vegan diets require careful planning to ensure they meet nutritional needs, with particular attention paid to the intake of calcium, iron and vitamin B12.

As for soft drinks, crisps, biscuits and doughnuts, these should be eaten no more than once or twice a week, the guide states.

Pregnant women are advised to avoid alcohol, paté and fish such as swordfish that may contain mercury, and to limit their caffeine intake to 200mg a day – less than two cups of coffee.

Rebuilt pyramid

The guide, which aims to show people how to make the best food choices for good health, is based on the food pyramid, which was redesigned for Irish consumers two years ago.

Meat and dairy products occupy the middle two layers of the pyramid, despite growing criticism of their prominence in the western diet.

Earlier this month, a report published in the Lancet called for a comprehensive global shift toward plant-based diets, which would involve a 90 per cent cut in the amount of meat and milk consumption in Ireland.

However, Dr Mary Flynn, chief specialist, public health nutrition at the Food Safety Authority, criticised the report for recommending a single reference diet for the globe. “A reference diet needs to be linked to the culture and traditions of a country, and take account of where food is grown so you don’t end up with high food miles.”

While the report had “shone a welcome light” on sustainability and climate change, it was important “not to throw the baby out with the bathwater” in relation to the consumption of meat and potatoes.

Red meat was an important source of iron for children, and women of child-bearing age, while potatoes, in their boiled form, have been a healthy and affordable source of nutrients for Irish families for generations, she said.

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