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If You Are a Vegan or Vegetarian, Are Your Bones Weaker?

People who stick to a vegan or vegetarian diet appear to be more likely to suffer a broken hip over the next decade.
If You Are a Vegan or Vegetarian, Are Your Bones Weaker?
Almond milk cocktail in jar with almond nuts on rustic wooden table. Vegan alternative food, non-dairy milk, clean eating concept.Almond milk cocktail in jar with almond nuts on rustic wooden table. Vegan alternative food, non-dairy milk, clean eating con

Many people choose not to eat meat because of environmental, ethical or health considerations. At least one study has shown, for example, that people on a vegan diet have lower levels of inflammation (Journal of the American Heart Association, Dec. 4, 2018). However, a recent study found that people following a vegan or vegetarian diet are more likely to break their bones (BMC Medicine, Nov. 23, 2020).

What Did the Study Find About Vegan or Vegetarian Diets?

British scientists collected extensive diet and health information on more than 50,000 Britons between 1993 and 2001. They then followed their subjects’ health for approximately 18 years. When the study began, almost 30,000 of the volunteers reported eating meat. Approximately 8,000 avoided meat but ate fish, while 15,000 classified themselves as vegetarian. Far fewer (under 2,000) reported following a vegan diet. Vegan diets include no animal products of any sort, including eggs, milk or honey, whereas many vegetarians include one or more of these foods in their own diets.

People who followed a vegetarian diet during that time had a 9 percent higher risk of breaking a bone. Those who were vegans has a 43 percent higher risk of fracture. These are relative risks. After the scientists made statistical adjustments, fish eaters and vegetarians had 2.9 more cases of broken hips per 1,000 people over 10 years than meat-eaters. The vegans had 14.9 more hip fractures per 1,000 people over 10 years. However, the researchers did not find significant differences in the rate of broken wrists or ankles.

Vegans consumed less calcium and protein, but it is not clear from this study whether these dietary factors were responsible for the difference in fracture risk. In fact, the authors conclude with the rather unsatisfactory observation “that bone health in vegans requires further research.” 

Previously, scientists comparing the nutritional qualities of diets have given vegan or vegetarian eating plans high marks (Nutrients, March 24, 2014). People who consume whole grains, vegetables, fruits and plant protein such as beans and legumes score higher in nutrient density. However, vegans do get less calcium than guidelines recommend. Perhaps that is why they are more likely to break bones.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
Citations
  • Shah B et al, "Anti-Inflammatory Effects of a Vegan Diet Versus the American Heart Association-Recommended Diet in Coronary Artery Disease Trial." Journal of the American Heart Association, Dec. 4, 2018. DOI: 10.1161/JAHA.118.011367
  • Tong TYN et al, "Vegetarian and vegan diets and risks of total and site-specific fractures: results from the prospective EPIC-Oxford study."
  • Clarys P et al, "Comparison of nutritional quality of the vegan, vegetarian, semi-vegetarian, pesco-vegetarian and omnivorous diet." Nutrients, March 24, 2014. DOI: 10.3390/nu6031318
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