A study of more than 26,000 middle-aged UK women revealed that those who ate a vegetarian diet had a 33% higher risk of hip fracture than those who ate regular meat.
The study, from the University of Leeds, was published today (Thursday, August 11) in the journal BMC Medicine, investigating hip fracture risk in occasional meat eaters; pescatarians, those who eat fish but not meat; and vegetarians compared to regular meat eaters.
Among 26,318 women, 822 hip fracture cases were observed over roughly 20 years — representing just over 3% of the sample population. After adjusting for factors such as smoking and age, vegetarians were the only food group with a higher risk of hip fracture.
This study is one of the few studies to compare the risk of hip fracture in vegetarians and meat eaters where the incidence of hip fracture was ascertained from hospital records.
The scientists stressed the need for more research into the exact reasons why vegetarians had a higher risk of hip fracture.
Vegetarian food can be ‘healthy or unhealthy’
Lead study author James Webster, a doctoral researcher at the School of Food Science and Nutrition in Leeds, said: “Our study highlights potential concerns about the risk of hip fracture in women who eat a vegetarian diet. However, this does not warn people to abandon a vegetarian diet. Like any diet. , it is important to understand individual circumstances and what nutrients are needed for a balanced healthy lifestyle.
“A vegetarian diet can vary greatly from person to person and can be healthy or unhealthy, just like a diet that includes animal products.
“However, the fact is that vegetarian diets are often low in nutrients associated with bone and muscle health. Such nutrients are generally higher in meat and other animal products than in plants, such as protein, calcium and other micronutrients.
“Lower intake of these nutrients can lead to lower bone mineral density and muscle mass, which can make you more susceptible to hip fracture risk. This makes it especially important for more research to better understand the reasons for the increased risk among vegetarians, whether Why specific nutritional deficiencies or weight management, so we can help people make healthier choices.”
Plant-based diets are growing in popularity
Vegetarian diets have gained popularity in recent years, with a 2021 YouGov survey putting the UK vegetarian population at around 5-7%. It is often considered a healthy diet option, with previous evidence showing that a vegetarian diet can reduce the risk of various chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart disease and cancer, compared to an omnivorous diet.
There are also global calls to reduce the use of animal products to combat climate change.
Understanding the risk of hip fracture in vegetarians is therefore becoming increasingly important for public health.
Study co-author Professor Janet Cade, leader of the Nutritional Epidemiology Group at the School of Food Science and Nutrition in Leeds, said: “Hip fracture is a global health problem with a high economic cost that results in loss of independence, reduced quality of life, and increased risk of other health problems.
“Plant-based diets have been linked to poor bone health, but evidence regarding links to hip fracture risk is lacking. This study is an important step in understanding the potential risks of long-term plant-based diets and what can be done to reduce those risks.”
The team used data from the UK Women’s Cohort Study to investigate potential links between diet and hip fracture risk. The National Cohort of Middle-Aged Women was established at the University of Leeds to explore the link between diet and chronic disease, covering a wide range of eating patterns. Dietary information was collected using a food frequency questionnaire and validated using a 4-day food diary in a subsample of women.
When they were recruited into the cohort study, the women were aged 35 to 69 years.
Effects of low BMI
The research team found that the average BMI among vegetarians was slightly lower than the average among regular meat eaters. Previous studies have shown a link between lower BMI and higher risk of hip fracture.
A low BMI can indicate that people are underweight, which means poor bone and muscle health and a higher risk of hip fracture. Further investigation is needed to determine whether lower BMI is a higher risk factor in vegetarians.
Study co-author Dr Darren Greenwood, a biostatistician at the School of Medicine in Leeds, said: “This research is only part of a wider picture of diet and healthy bones and muscles in older age.
“To confirm whether similar results may occur in men, further research is needed to explore the role of body weight and identify reasons for the different results between vegetarians and meat eaters.”