Vegetarianism offers many health benefits but bone strength does not appear to be one of them. A new study from the University of Leeds in England found both men and women who follow a vegetarian diet have a 50 percent greater risk of suffering a hip fracture compared to people who eat meat.
This study included more than 400,000 participants and confirmed what previous studies had shown about vegetarian women. Other studies with vegetarian men were much smaller and provided inconclusive results.
Researchers looked at data from study subjects between 2006-2010 as part of the UK Biobank project. The participants were divided between vegetarians (those who ate no meat), pescatarians (those who ate fish but no meat), occasional meat eaters (those who ate meat less than five times per week) and meat eaters (those who ate meat five ore more times per week).
Scientists then tracked those participants through the year 2021 and checked hospital records for cases of hip fracture. Among the 413,914 men and women there were 3,503 cases of hip fracture.
While the overall incidence of fracture was small at 0.8 percent, the relative risk between vegetarians and meat eaters was 50 percent greater. And it did not matter if it was an occasional or a regular meat eater. There was a small increase in the risk for pescatarians compared to meat-eaters at 8 percent, but it was classified as statistically non-significant.
"Hip fractures are a growing problem in an aging society, and can trigger debilitating health conditions and a loss of quality of life," said researcher James Webster. "This study shows that while vegetarians face a greater risk of hip fracture than meat-eaters—at 50%—this translates to just 3 more hip fractures per 1,000 people over 10 years. The health benefits of a vegetarian diet, including a lower risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease, may still outweigh any increases in hip fracture risk.
"Our analysis suggests that low BMI may be a key factor in why their risk is higher," Webster added. "Additionally, vegetarians were about 17% less likely to meet protein recommendations than meat-eaters. So, important messages from our study are that vegetarians need to ensure they are getting a balanced diet with enough protein and maintain a healthy BMI. This will help vegetarians to maintain healthy bones and muscles."
"Hip fracture is a major health issue and diet may have a part to play in affecting risk," fellow researcher Janet Cade said. "This research, using the large UK Biobank, confirms our previous work, showing that a vegetarian diet increases risk of hip fracture compared to regular meat eaters, in both men and women. While vegetarian diets have health benefits, understanding diet quality and the balance of key nutrients may help to reduce risk and improve future bone health."