Posted by: bluesyemre | August 26, 2022

How to build strong bones if you don’t eat meat

Researchers from the University of Leeds found that, by a third, vegetarians had a greater risk of hip fracture than meat-eaters and pescatarians

As new research shows vegetarians and vegans are at greater risk of hip fractures, here’s how a plant-based diet can aid skeletal strength

If you are thinking of switching to a plant-based diet for the sake of your health, it might not be as simple as you’d hoped. A new study has found that women on a vegetarian diet are more likely to fracture their hips.

Researchers from the University of Leeds looked at 26,318 women between the ages of 35 and 69 years and found that, by a third, vegetarians had a greater risk of hip fracture than meat-eaters and pescatarians. The findings are the latest to support numerous studies suggesting that vegetarians tend towards poor bone health.

Britain’s non-meat-eating population remains relatively small, with vegetarians estimated at around 5-7 per cent and vegans at just 2-3 per cent. However, plant-based lifestyles have been on the rise over recent years, with growing numbers eschewing meat in the last five years and health is often cited as a key reason for the decision to go plant-based.

Since many of the top bone-building nutrients – including calcium, vitamin D and algae-based omega 3 – can easily be consumed on a vegetarian diet, scientists remain rather baffled.

One theory is that lower BMIs amongst vegetarians, might be a partial explanation, indicating that vegans and vegetarians are generally eating less. “If you have a lower energy (calorie) intake overall, there’s a chance you are not getting all the vitamins, such as calcium and vitamin D, needed for bone health,” says Lily Chapman, performance coach and nutritionist at P3rform, a digital fitness coaching provider.

Chapman, who has worked with vegetarian and vegan elite athletes, says one of the most important things for maintaining bone health and preventing the risk of fracture and osteoporosis is energy intake. “Making sure you’re not in a major energy deficit increases that chance that you have all the essential vitamins and minerals.” 

Another theory is that veggie diets often have a lower intake of vitamin B12, which is found in oily fish – such as salmon, sardines, herring and mackerel, red meat, liver and egg yolks. “This plays a major role in bone development and maintenance through life,” says Chapman.

One thing that the scientists do agree on is that there’s more research needed on the impacts of vegetarianism on bone health. In the meantime though, there are lots of things those on plant-based diets can do to protect their bones.

Opt for variety

‘A diet that’s rich in health-promoting foods – particularly whole foods – is essential for optimal bone health’ CREDIT: Peter Dazeley

Any diet can be unhealthy or unbalanced, regardless of food philosophy. However, when making the switch to a diet that excludes meat or dairy, it becomes crucial to pay additional attention to eat a varied diet. “Often, people changing their diets to vegan or vegetarian restrict and limit the variety of healthy foods they consume,” says Dr Alona Pulde, lead nutritionist at Lifesum, a digital self-care and nutrition app. “Many choose more processed foods over whole plant-based foods like lentils, beans, chickpeas or whole grains, such as quinoa. As a result, they may end up deficient in many nutrients. The take-home message here is that a diet that’s rich in health-promoting foods – particularly whole foods – is essential for optimal bone health. And that applies to all diet philosophies.” 

Chapman recommends having around “half of your plate being made up of fruit and veg” and a handful of nuts a day, for added protein. “Trying to get as many colours on your plate as possible is a good idea with many fruits and veg being good for bone health.” 

Watch your protein intake

In the Leeds study, vegetarians also had a lower intake of protein and vitamin B12, and were less likely than regular meat-eaters to meet UK guidelines for protein intake. “Protein is really key for bone health,” says Chapman. “It optimises levels of a hormone called IGF-1, which stimulates bone health and increases calcium and phosphorus absorption in the gut.” Beans and pulses are great sources of protein, she adds.

It’s worth noting that, done right, plant-based diets are often associated with better overall health, with vegetarians, on average, having decreased risks of some cancers, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. “Vegetarian diets are probably net-beneficial,” says researcher James Webster, who authored the Leeds study. “But they may need more planning and attention to detail to ensure adequate nutrient intakes, a healthy body weight, and good bone and muscle health.”  

Stay active 

“Exercise is also a great way to improve bone density,” says Chapman. “150 minutes of physical activity per week, including resistance training, increases muscle mass on the body and strong muscles are linked to strong bones.”

“There is no better time than right now to start caring for your bone health,” adds Dr Pulde. 

Seven bone-boosting foods

  1. Calcium: The NHS recommends that adults between 19 and 64 consume 700mg of calcium per day. However, taking more than 1,500 mg per day can lead to stomach pain and diarrhoea. 
  2. Milk: 1 cup of milk, skimmed or full fat, contains 300 mg of your daily recommended calcium intake, the main nutrient for bone health. Alternatively, various soy, oat and almond alternatives contain 200-400mg of calcium per cup, depending on the brand.
  3. Nuts and seeds: Nuts are great sources of magnesium and phosphorus, nutrients essential for helping you to absorb calcium into the bones. Almonds are a great source of magnesium, while sesame seeds are loaded with calcium, magnesium and phosphorus. The recommended daily intake for magnesium is 400mg and phosphorus is 700mg.
  4. Greens: Leafy green vegetables are often a great source of vitamin K, which is thought to be crucial for bone health because it activates several proteins involved in bone formation. Low intake of vitamin K is associated with bone loss and fractures. Cooked kale and broccoli are good options.
  5. Cereals: Many cereals are fortified with calcium and also vitamin D which regulates calcium absorption to a significant degree, says Chapman. Pay extra attention to vitamin D intake in winter months.
  6. Tofu: About half a cup can get you about 40-50 per cent of your daily calcium requirement, says Dr Pulde, with 4oz of tofu providing 300 mg calcium, compared to 4oz chicken which provides 17 mg, and beef which has 18mg.
  7. Fish/omega 3 alternatives: Pescatarians and omnivores can benefit from the high calcium levels found in oily fish. The omega-3 helps to stimulate the survival of bone cells called osteoclasts, says Chapman, which play a role in bone development and regeneration. Vegans and vegetarians may opt for plant-based omega-3 supplements.

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