Compared to habitual meat eaters, vegetarians have a 33% higher risk of hip fracture, according to a study of over 26,000 middle-aged UK women. Researchers from the University of Leeds examined the risk of hip fracture in occasional meat eaters, pescatarians–those who consume fish but no meat–and vegetarians in comparison to regular meat eaters. Their findings were published today (Thursday, August 11) in the journal BMC Medicine.
Over a period of about 20 years, 822 hip fracture cases involving 26,318 women were noted; this amounted to just over 3% of the sample. Vegetarians were the only diet group with an elevated risk of hip fracture after accounting for factors like smoking and age. This study is one of the few to compare the risk of hip fracture in vegetarians and meat eaters using hospital records to confirm hip fracture occurrence.
The researchers emphasise the importance of further investigation into the precise reasons why vegetarians were more likely to suffer a hip fracture. There are “healthy” and “unhealthy” vegetarian diets.
Leeds School of Food Science and Nutrition doctoral researcher James Webster, the study’s lead author, stated: “Our study highlights potential concerns regarding risk of hip fracture in women who have a vegetarian diet. It does not, however, advise people to stop eating vegetarianism. Like with any diet, it’s critical to comprehend one’s unique situation and the nutrients required for a balanced, healthy lifestyle. Similar to diets containing animal products, vegetarian diets can be either healthy or unhealthy depending on the individual. However, the fact that vegetarian diets frequently have lower intakes of nutrients linked to healthy bones and muscles is concerning. Protein, calcium, and other micronutrients are examples of the types of nutrients that are typically more prevalent in meat and other animal products than in plants.
In order to help people make healthy choices, it is especially important for future research to better understand the factors causing the increased risk in vegetarians, whether they be specific nutrient deficiencies or weight management. Low intake of these nutrients can lead to lower bone mineral density and muscle mass, which can increase the risk of hip fracture. Recent years have seen a rise in the popularity of vegetarian diets; according to a YouGov survey from 2021, there are about 5-7% vegetarians in the UK. With prior research demonstrating that a vegetarian diet can lower the risks of several chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, and cancer compared to omnivorous diets, it is frequently seen as a healthier dietary option.
In an effort to combat climate change, there is a global call for reducing the consumption of animal products. Determining the likelihood of hip fracture in vegetarians is therefore crucial for public health.
“Hip fracture is a global health issue with high economic costs that causes loss of independence, lowers quality of life, and increases risk of other health issues,” said study co-author Professor Janet Cade, head of the Nutritional Epidemiology Group in Leeds’ School of Food Science and Nutrition. There is insufficient evidence to link a plant-based diet to an increased risk of hip fracture, but it has been linked to poor bone health. Understanding the potential risks that long-term plant-based diets may carry and what can be done to reduce those risks is made easier with the help of this study. The team looked into potential correlations between diet and risk of hip fracture using data from the UK Women’s Cohort Study. The University of Leeds created the national cohort of middle-aged women to investigate the relationship between diet and chronic disease, encompassing a variety of different eating patterns. A 4-day food diary was used to validate the dietary data collected using a food frequency questionnaire on a subsample of women.
The women’s ages when they were enrolled in the cohort study ranged from 35 to 69. The study’s team discovered that vegetarians’ average BMI was marginally lower than that of regular meat eaters. An increased risk of hip fracture has been linked to low BMI, according to earlier studies.
A lower BMI may indicate underweight individuals, who may have weaker bones and muscles and a higher risk of hip fracture. If low BMI accounts for the observed higher risk in vegetarians, more research is required to confirm this. Dr. Darren Greenwood, a biostatistician and study co-author from Leeds School of Medicine, said: “This study is just one piece of the larger picture of diet and healthy bones and muscles in older age.
“Further research is needed to confirm whether there may be similar results in men, to explore the significance of body weight, and to identify the causes of different outcomes in vegetarians and meat-eaters,” the statement reads.