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Meat-free diets associated with a higher risk of fractures

By Clare Wilson

Eating a vegetarian diet can increase the risk of fractures

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People who don’t eat meat are at greater risk of breaking bones, especially their hips, according to the largest study to date on this risk. The effect may be due to a lack of calcium and protein in their diet, as well as the fact that they tend to be thinner and therefore have less meat to cushion a fall.

Several previous studies have shown that vegetarians have weaker bones than meat eaters, but it was unclear whether this had a significant impact on their risk of fractures.

The new study took advantage of a long-running study called EPIC-Oxford that looked at whether diet affects cancer risk by tracking the health of about 65,000 people in the UK as of 1993. The study recorded people’s typical diets and tracked their health using hospital records.

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By 2010, vegans had broken a hip more than twice as likely as meat eaters, while vegetarians and fish eaters had a lower risk of around 25 percent. Vegans – but not vegetarians and pesketeers – were also at greater risk of breaking other bones.

The overall risk for vegans was relatively low, equivalent to about 20 additional fractures per 1,000 people over a 10-year period. However, the fracture rate is likely to be higher in older people, who are more likely to break their hips, as the average age of the participants was 45 at the beginning, says researcher Tammy Tong of Oxford University.

When analyzing people’s diets, meat eaters consumed more calcium and protein. Calcium is an important part of bones, and protein can aid the absorption of calcium from food. “Unless they’re actively supplementing, vegans are pretty unlikely to get enough calcium from just their diet,” says Tong.

But it’s possible that people following a vegan diet today have higher calcium levels. “There was less fortification in plant milk in the 1990s,” she says.

Heather Russell, Nutritionist with the Vegan Society in the UK, says: “It is certainly possible to take care of your bones with a well-planned vegan diet, but people need information to make healthy choices.”

A study of the same group of people has previously shown that after 15 years vegetarians are associated with a 10 percent lower risk of cancer and a 20 percent lower rate of heart disease – but also a 20 percent higher risk of a stroke.

Journal reference: BMC Medicine, DOI: 10.1186 / s12916-020-01815-3

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