How Does Vegan Diet Affect Bone Health?
As our understanding of health and nutrition expands and increasing numbers turn to veganism as a healthy and environmentally friendly approach to our diet, it’s vital to ensure you’re getting sufficient vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients to ensure a healthy and balanced diet.
One aspect of the vegan diet that’s been heavily scrutinized in recent years is whether it’s possible to consume the necessary nutrients required for strong and healthy bones.
Diet and site-specific fractures: a study
Probably the most comprehensive studies on bone health and different diets appeared in the BMC Medicine journal in November 2020. In this study, researchers looked at the risks of total and site-specific bone fractures in over 54,000 participants. The study took place across an average of 18 years (starting between 1993-2001 and running until 2016).
This study, conducted in the UK, is one of the most extensive longitudinal studies on the matter. The participants comprised nearly 30,000 meat-eaters, 8,000 pescatarians, 15,000 vegetarians, and 2,000 vegans at the start of the study. During the 18 average years, these participants were tracked, 3,941 fractures were recorded and analyzed. Most of these fractures were in the hip, followed by the wrist, arm, ankle, and leg.
Researchers found that people following a vegan diet suffered almost 20 more fractures per 1,000 people over 10 years. These fractures were particularly prevalent in the hips and legs, followed by the clavicle, ribs, and vertebrae.
The next dietary group at risk of hip fractures were vegetarians, followed by pescatarians. Those who ate meat were the least at risk.
But while these results may suggest a vegan diet can increase the risk of bone fractures, researchers also noted that BMI, dietary calcium, and protein intake also affected the results. For example, a lower BMI was associated with a heightened risk of hip fractures but a lower risk of ankle fractures.
Why are vegans more at risk?
The above study certainly isn’t the only time bone health and various diets – specifically veganism – has been compared, and the results tend to be reasonably consistent. That said, when you consider other elements, such as protein and calcium intake, these results may take a slightly different appearance.
The relationship between our health and the things we eat has been long established, and there’s a reason dairy milk is cited as excellent for bone health: because it’s high in the nutrients our bodies need for strong and healthy bones. And while there are other sources of calcium and proteins, there are some queries over whether vegan sources of these nutrients are as bioavailable as animal proteins.
That said, it’s entirely possible to be deficient in bone-healthy nutrients even when following a carnivorous diet, so it cannot be as simple as only animal-based foods can ensure healthy bones.
What nutrients are most important when it comes to bone health?
Most of us are familiar with calcium = strong bones, but our bodies require more than simply calcium to grow and function properly.
Calcium is probably the most vital ingredient for bone health, with experts recommending daily consumption of 600mg. While this might sound challenging, it’s not as tough as you might think to get this amount of calcium on a plant-based diet.
Vegans looking to increase their calcium consumption should eat plenty of calcium-rich foods, such as:
- Cooked broccoli
- Brussel sprouts
- Collard greens
- Fortified plant milk
Vitamin D is also vital as it aids with calcium absorption. While you can synthase some Vitamin D from sunlight, many factors can reduce your skin’s ability to absorb Vitamin D in this manner, and it’s always a good idea to consume this vitamin through your diet, too.
Some Vitamin D-rich foods include:
- Fortified cereals
- Soy and almond milk
Many vegans may also benefit from Vitamin D supplements. However, it’s vital to be vigilant when considering supplements, as many are made from animal derivatives.
Potassium is used by the body in a wide range of functions, including decreasing the loss of calcium and increasing bone-building. We all know that bananas are a great source of potassium, and you can also find this mineral in other fruits and vegetables such as:
Vitamins B12, D, C, and K are all associated with solid bones. Minerals, including magnesium, potassium, zinc, and more, are also critical for bone health.
A diet rich in plant proteins such as nuts, seeds, and soy products like tofu is also vital for healthy vegans. Choose these healthy options - it's easy to incorporate it, as you can even make tofu taste like chicken (Tofubud has some great tips and recipes for vegans looking to increase their protein intake).
Can you have strong bones and be vegan?
Although many studies suggest a relationship between veganism and weaker bones, when you look at the findings in greater detail, it becomes clear that it’s less about where you get your nutrients from and more about ensuring you have enough of them.
Therefore, as long as you’re getting a sufficient amount of foods rich in calcium and other bone-healthy nutrients, there seems to be no reason why your bones need to suffer because you’ve chosen not to eat meat or dairy.