People who don’t eat meat are more at risk of breaking bones, especially their hips, according to the largest study yet of this risk. The effect may stem from a lack of calcium and protein in their diet, as well as the fact that they tend to be thinner and so have less flesh to cushion a fall.
Several previous studies have shown that vegetarians have weaker bones than meat eaters, but it was unclear if this had any meaningful effect on their risk of fractures.
The new research took advantage of a long-running study called EPIC-Oxford, originally set up to look at whether diet influences the risk of cancer by following the health of about 65,000 people in the UK from 1993 onwards. The study recorded people’s typical diet and tracked their health through hospital records.
By 2010, vegans had broken a hip at over twice the rate of meat eaters, while vegetarians and fish eaters had a smaller increase in risk, of about 25 per cent. Vegans – but not vegetarians and pescetarians – also had a higher risk of breaking other bones.
The overall level of risk to vegans was relatively small, equating to about an extra 20 bones broken per 1000 people over 10 years. But the fracture rate is likely to be higher in the elderly, who break hips more often, as the average age of participants at the start was 45, says researcher Tammy Tong at the University of Oxford.
When people’s diets were analysed, meat eaters consumed more calcium and protein. Calcium is an important component of bones, and protein may aid calcium absorption from food. “Unless they are actively supplementing, it’s quite unlikely that vegans will have a sufficient intake of calcium just from the diet,” says Tong.
But it is possible that people eating a vegan diet today may have higher calcium levels. “In the 1990s, there was less fortification of plant milks,” she says.
Heather Russell, a dietitian at the Vegan Society in the UK, says: “It’s certainly possible to look after your bones on a well-planned vegan diet, but people need information to make healthy choices.”
Studying the same group of people has previously shown that being vegetarian is linked with about a 10 per cent lower risk of cancer after 15 years, and about a 20 per cent lower rate of heart disease – but also a 20 per cent higher risk of a stroke.
Journal reference: BMC Medicine, DOI: 10.1186/s12916-020-01815-3
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