If you’re one of the many Americans who has decided to go vegetarian or vegan for health benefits (e.g., lower blood pressure, reduced risk for heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, just to name a few!), there’s one possible negative consequence you may not be aware of. A recent study found that people on plant-based diets, in particular vegans, had a higher risk of developing broken bones including wrist, arm, ankle, leg, and hip fractures. Researchers think it may be related to the bioavailability of some key nutrients in the vegetarian/vegan diet. For example, even though whole grains and leafy green vegetables contain calcium, it is not as bioavailable as it is in dairy products. Phytates (in whole grains) and oxalates (in leafy greens) are compounds that bind minerals like calcium, zinc and iron, so the minerals aren’t fully absorbed, but rather inhibited to a degree. That means even though spinach and other leafy greens are high in calcium, the oxalates in them prevent the body from absorbing that calcium as much as it could from dairy. Vegetarian and vegan diets, if not planned properly, can put individuals at risk for inadequate intakes of several nutrients important for bone health including calcium, protein, vitamin D, vitamin B-12, omega-3 fatty acids, and zinc. While it’s still possible to get enough, vegetarians and particularly vegans, need to be very careful about getting the nutrients they need to support bone health due to the decreased bioavailability of some nutrients. However, with careful selection, many of these nutrients may still be obtained through food sources that include fortified products. And, in some cases, individuals on a vegetarian/vegan diet may need a boost and supplements may be helpful and advised to ensure adequacy. With attention to these considerations, good-quality plant-based diets can provide a healthy foundation for building and maintaining healthy bones and preventing fractures.
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