Vegetarian women have a 33 percent higher risk of breaking a hip

A large study tracking women in the UK finds that vegetarians have a higher risk of breaking a hip compared to women who eat any amount of meat


11 August 2022

Woman arranges vegetarian buffet

Vegetarian diets tend to contain less calcium and vitamin B12, which is important for bone health

Facinadora/Alamy Stock Photo

The risk of breaking a hip is a third higher for women who are vegetarian than those who eat regular meat, according to a large British study.

The increase in risk may arise from meat-free diets that tend to have less protein, which helps build muscle mass, and possible deficiencies in vitamins and minerals, such as calcium and vitamin B12, which help strengthen bones.

Women are more likely to break their hips than men, especially as they age, because after menopause levels of the sex hormone estrogen drop, leading to weaker bones. Broken hips are a significant cause of death in older people, as they are difficult to recover from and can lead to long-term immobility and health complications. “The effect on health is quite large,” says James Webster of the University of Leeds, UK.

Previous studies have suggested that vegetarians and vegans have weaker bones, so Webster’s team took advantage of a large ongoing study that has tracked the health and lifestyle of over 26,000 women in the UK for about 20 years. They were aged between 35 and 69 at the time of recruitment, and none were transgender as far as the researchers know.

In total, around 3 percent of the participants broke their hip during that time. Those who were vegetarians had a 33 percent higher risk of this happening compared to those who ate meat at least five times a week.

There was no difference in risk between regular meat eaters and those who ate smaller amounts, or only ate fish. Vegans were not included in the study.

Other research has found that being a vegetarian is better for your health in various ways – for example, it is linked to a lower risk of heart disease. However, all such studies, including the latest one, are observational and therefore cannot prove that diet causes different health patterns – only that there are correlations.

Such studies can make meat-free diets seem more beneficial than they really are because vegetarians usually have healthier lifestyles in other ways, such as avoiding smoking and drinking heavily. The best kind of medical evidence comes from randomized trials, but these are difficult to do for a big dietary choice like whether or not to eat meat.

Webster says the latest findings should not put people off vegetarianism, as people can get protein from dairy products and legumes and can take vitamin supplements or use calcium-fortified dairy products if needed.

Jen Elford of the Vegetarian Society says: “It’s important to keep this issue in perspective – health outcomes for vegetarians are generally very good. Fracture risk is generally correlated with calcium and vitamin D intake, thus highlighting the need to ensure reliable intake of these nutrients.”

Journal reference: BMC medicineDOI: 10.1186/s12916-022-02468-0

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