Does a vegan or vegetarian diet affect your bone health?
Could the trend towards plant-based diets be putting the health of our bones at risk? Here’s what you need to know, to protect your bone health at any age.
Many of us are adopting plant-based diets in a bid to stay healthy – and to help save the planet – but a recent report from the Health and Food Supplements Information Service (HSIS) warns vegetarian and vegan diets can lead to a serious lack of vitamins, minerals and omega-3 fats in our diets, with worrying health consequences. Although a varied and well-planned vegetarian or vegan diet can meet most people’s nutritional needs, balancing the diet isn’t always that easy.
According to the report, vegans and vegetarians are typically at risk of dietary shortfalls in vital micronutrients which help fuel our daily health and wellbeing, including:
vitamin B12 which helps to metabolise energy and maintain a healthy nervous system, red and white blood cell formation, immune function and cell division, as well as reducing tiredness and fatigue.
iron which contributes to normal energy metabolism, cognitive function, the formation of red blood cells - which are used in oxygen transport to all the cells in the body.
vitamin D which helps the absorption/utilisation of calcium and phosphorus and blood calcium levels, as well as maintaining normal bone, teeth, muscle and immune function.
The HSIS survey of 17,262 people also revealed that a quarter of vegans and vegetarians had been diagnosed with a nutrient deficiency at some stage, mostly related to iron or vitamin D.
Worryingly, the most recent National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) also showed that 29% of adults aged 19-64 have a vitamin D deficiency, putting them at risk of developing a number of bone conditions such as osteoporosis and, at the extreme end of the scale, osteomalacia. Furthermore, over recent years there has been an increase in reports of children developing rickets - a painful condition where bones become soft and deformed, which presents similarly to osteomalacia .
Over at Oxford University, Dr Tammy Tong from the EPIC-Oxford research group – which follows some 65,000 men and women living in the UK, many of whom are vegetarian, as part of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) – has found that vegans had higher risks of total, hip, leg and vertebral fractures than meat meat-eaters, while fish-eaters and vegetarians had higher risks of hip fractures than meat eaters.
Dr Tong and her team believe these differences may be partly explained by the lower average body mass index, and lower average intakes of calcium and protein in the non-meat eaters. However, they add that because the differences remained, especially in vegans, after accounting for these factors, other unaccounted for factors may be important – such as age, sex and menopausal status – and further studies are needed around these, as well as assessments of the possible roles of other nutrients that are abundant in animal-sourced foods.
Self-care for bone health
“While fractures in adulthood and older ages are a common occurrence which poses a significant burden to health systems worldwide, and having low vitamin D levels is a common problem in the UK, most people don't know if they are in the risk zone”, says Dr Kush Joshi, UK medical lead here at Melio.
The good news is that a simple, comprehensive blood test can pick up any warning signs that your bone health might be in jeopardy, and give you personalised advice on how to reduce that risk.
Designed by our expert medical team, the Melio General Health Check looks at eight crucial health areas by examining 50 biomarkers to provide an overview of your current health status – including your vitamin D levels. The results help our experts create your personal medical report with advice about how to reduce any apparent health risks as well as signposting to further help and support.
Check your health status today
If you want to find out more about your overall health you can book a General Health Check directly via Melio, at a time that suits you.
A trained health professional at one of our partner clinics will perform the blood draw, and send the sample to one of our UKAS accredited labs. All test results are individually checked by one of our in-house doctors, who will also write you a personal medical report with any further advice and guidance you may need.
Book your General Health Check blood test click here or use the chat button if you’d like talk to one of our specially trained advisors for more information.
 Tong, T.Y.N., Appleby, P.N., Armstrong, M.E.G. et al. Vegetarian and vegan diets and risks of total and site-specific fractures: results from the prospective EPIC-Oxford study. BMC Med 18, 353 (2020