If your elders ever chided you to eat your veggies “to have healthy, strong bones,” then prepare for your inner child’s vindication. A recent study from the University of Leeds revealed that while a vegetarian diet has plenty of benefits, it has some notable cons, too.
And for middle-aged women, one such downside includes an increased risk of hip fracture—roughly 33% as compared to regular meat eaters in the study. A hip fracture is a serious, independence-altering injury, which makes this statistic all the more alarming.
But before you swear off brussels sprouts forever, let’s get to the root of the facts.
The Proof Is In Bone Mineral Density
The University of Leeds study followed 26,318 UK women to determine how their reported diets would translate in terms of hip health. Diets were varied among the women, ranging from omnivore (both regular and occasional meat consumers) to pescatarian to vegetarian (which also included a small percentage of vegans). Hip fractures occurred in 822 participants or 3% of the sample population.
Researchers then adjusted the hip fracture data to reflect other potential factors, such as ethnicity, the prevalence of other diseases, and other lifestyle factors. That data revealed that vegetarians exclusively had an elevated risk of hip fracture.
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While scientists say the subject needs more research, preliminary estimates suggest vegetarians’ increased risk is due to a lower bone mineral density. Nutrients often found in animal products, such as protein, calcium, and other micronutrients, support healthy bone mineral density.
“Low intake of these nutrients can lead to lower bone mineral density and muscle mass, which can make you more susceptible to hip fracture risk,” wrote Dr. James Webster, the study’s lead author. “This makes it especially important for further research so that we can help people to make healthy choices.”
A Global Health Issue With High Economic Costs
Part of the urgency around finding more information on the link between bone health and vegetarianism is the severity of the potential injury. Study co-author Dr. Janet Cade described hip fracture as a “global health issue with high economic costs that causes loss of independence, reduces the quality of life, and increases the risk of other health issues.”
With more information, middle-aged individuals (particularly those who forgo meat) can make better, more informed choices about their health. Because all things considered, a vegetarian diet isn’t a bad idea. Not only does it lower the risk of some chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, but it’s also better for the environment.
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Still, it’s important to be aware of all potential risks of a diet, even one that seems particularly healthy on the surface. While scientists gather more data on plant-eaters’ bone health, there are some steps you can take to fortify your nutrition.
One possible solution is to add more nutrient-rich veggies to your diet (as a vegetarian myself, I know how tempting it can be to slip into a diet of mostly potatoes and beans). Foods rich in calcium include leafy greens, squash, and broccoli. Vitamin D, which helps the body absorb calcium, can be found in mushrooms, citrus fruits, and bananas.
Another way to fortify your diet is to take supplements to support gaps in your nutrition. It’s important to consult with a doctor or nutritionist to figure out what deficiency you might have and which supplements are recommended.
Being a vegetarian can have many benefits, and by taking precautions and focusing on filling any nutrient gaps, you can better avoid potential downfalls like the one illustrated in this study.
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