Are Vegan Diets Bad For Your Bones?

The Secrets To A Healthy Vegan Diet

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Frail ElderlyOsteoporosis is a debilitating and potentially deadly disease associated with aging. It affects 54 million Americans. It can cause debilitating back pain and bone fractures. 50% of women and 25% of men over 50 will break a bone due to osteoporosis. Hip fractures in the elderly due to osteoporosis are often a death sentence.

As I discussed in a previous issue of “Health Tips From The Professor”, a “bone-healthy lifestyle requires 3 essentials – calcium, vitamin D, and weight bearing exercise. If any of these three essentials is presence in inadequate amounts, you can’t build healthy bones. In addition, other nutrients such as protein, magnesium, zinc, vitamin B12, and omega-3 fatty acids may play supporting roles.

Vegan and other plant-based diets are thought to be very healthy. They decrease the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers. However, vegan diets tend to be low in calcium, vitamin D, zinc, vitamin B12, protein, and omega-3 fatty acids. Could vegan diets be bad for your bones?

A meta-analysis of 9 studies published in 2009 (LT Ho-Pham et al, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 90: 943-950, 2009) reported that vegans had 4% lower bone density than omnivores, but concluded this difference was “not likely to be clinically relevant”.

However, that study did not actually compare bone fracture rates in vegans and omnivores. So, investigators have followed up with a much larger meta-analysis (I Iguacel et al, Nutrition Reviews 77, 1-18, 2019) comparing both bone density and bone fracture rates in vegans and omnivores.

How Was This Study Done?

Clinical StudyThe investigators searched the literature for all human clinical studies through November 2017 that compared bone densities and frequency of bone fractures of people consuming vegan and/or vegetarian diets with people consuming an omnivore diet.

  • Vegan diets were defined as excluding all animal foods.
  • Vegetarian diets were defined as excluding meat, poultry, fish, seafood, and flesh from any animal but including dairy foods and/or eggs. [Note: The more common name for this kind of diet is lacto-ovo vegetarian, but I will use the author’s nomenclature in this review.]
  • Omnivore diets were defined as including both plant and animal foods from every food group.

The investigators ended up with 20 studies that had a total of 37,134 participants. Of the 20 studies, 9 were conducted in Asia (Taiwan, Vietnam, India, Korea, and Hong-Kong), 6 in North America (the United States and Canada), and 4 were conducted in Europe (Italy, Finland, Slovakia, and the United Kingdom).

Are Vegan Diets Bad For Your Bones?

Here is what the investigators found:

Unhealthy BoneBone density: The clinical studies included 3 different sites for bone density measurements – the lumbar spine, the femoral neck, and the total body. When they compared bone density of vegans and vegetarians with the bone density of omnivores, here is what they found:

Lumbar spine:

    • Vegans and vegetarians combined had a 3.2% lower bone density than omnivores.
    • The effect of diet was stronger for vegans (7% decrease in bone density) than it was for vegetarians (2.3% decrease in bone density).

Femoral neck:

    • Vegans and vegetarians combined had a 3.7% lower bone density than omnivores.
    • The effect of diet was stronger for vegans (5.5% decrease in bone density) than it was for vegetarians (2.5% decrease in bone density).

Whole body:

    • Vegans and vegetarians combined had a 3.2% lower bone density than omnivores.
    • The effect of diet was statistically significant for vegans (5.9% decrease in bone density) but not for vegetarians (3.5% decrease in bone density). [Note: Statistical significance is not determined by how much bone density is decreased. It is determined by the size of the sample and the variations in bone density among individuals in the sample.]

Bone FractureBone Fractures: The decrease in bone density of vegans in this study was similar to that reported in the 2009 study I discussed above. However, rather than simply speculating about the clinical significance of this decrease in bone density, the authors of this study also measured the frequency of fractures in vegans, vegetarians, and omnivores. Here is what they found.

  • Vegans and vegetarians combined had a 32% higher risk of bone fractures than omnivores.
  • The effect of diet on risk of bone fractures was statistically significant for vegans (44% higher risk of bone fracture) but not for vegetarians (25% higher risk of bone fractures).
  • These data suggest the decreased bone density in vegans is clinically significant.

The authors concluded, “The findings of this study suggest that both vegetarian and vegan diets are associated with lower bone density compared with omnivorous diets. The effect of vegan diets on bone density is more pronounced than the effect of vegetarian diets, and vegans have a higher fracture risk than omnivores. Both vegetarian and vegan diets should be appropriate planned to avoid dietary deficiencies associated with bone health.”

The Secrets To A Healthy Vegan Diet

Emoticon-BadThe answer to this question lies in the last statement in the author’s conclusion, “Both vegetarian and vegan diets should be appropriate planned to avoid dietary deficiencies associated with bone health.” 

The problem also lies in the difference between what a nutrition expert considers a vegan diet and what the average consumer considers a vegan diet. To the average consumer a vegan diet is simply a diet without any animal foods. What could go wrong with that definition? Let me count the ways.

  1. Sugar and white flour are vegan. A vegan expert thinks of a vegan diet as a whole food diet – primarily fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds. A vegan novice includes all their favorites – sodas, sweets, and highly processed foods. And that may not leave much room for healthier vegan foods.

2) Big Food, Inc is not your friend. Big Food tells you that you don’t need to give up the taste of animal foods just because you are going vegan. They will just combine sugar, white flour, and a witch’s brew of chemicals to give you foods that taste just like your favorite meats and dairy foods. The problem is these are all highly processed foods. They are not healthy. Some people call them “fake meats” or “fake cheeses”. I call them “fake vegan”.

If you are going vegan, embrace your new diet. Bean burgers may not taste like Big Macs, but they are delicious. If need other delicious vegan recipe ideas, I recommend the website https://forksoverknives.com.

3) A bone healthy vegan diet is possible, but it’s not easy. Let’s go back to the author’s phrase “…vegan diets should be appropriate planned to avoid dietary deficiencies associated with bone health.” A vegan expert will do the necessary planning. A vegan novice will assume all they need to do is give up animal foods. 

As I said earlier, vegan diets tend to be low in calcium, vitamin D, zinc, vitamin B12, protein, and omega-3 fatty acids. Let’s look at how a vegan expert might plan their diet to get enough of those bone-healthy nutrients.

    • Calcium. The top plant sources of calcium are leafy greens and soy foods at about 100-250 mg (10-25% of the DV) of calcium per serving. Some beans and seeds are moderately good sources of calcium. Soy foods are a particularly good choice because they are a good source of calcium and contain phytoestrogens that stimulate bone formation.

A vegan expert makes sure they get these foods every day and often adds a calcium supplement.

    • Protein. Soy foods, beans, and some whole grains are the best plant sources of protein.soy

It drives me crazy when a vegan novice tells me they were told they can get all the protein they need from broccoli and leafy greens. That is incredibly bad advice.

A vegan expert makes sure they get soy foods, beans, and protein-rich grains every day and often adds a protein supplement.

    • Zinc. There are several plant foods that supply around 20% the DV for zinc including lentils, oatmeal, wild rice, squash and pumpkin seeds, quinoa, and black beans.

A vegan expert makes sure they get these foods every day and often adds a multivitamin supplement containing zinc.

    • Vitamin D and vitamin B12. These are very difficult to get from a vegan diet. Even vegan experts usually rely on supplements to get enough of these important nutrients.

4) Certain vegan foods can even be bad for your bones. I divide these into healthy vegan foods and unhealthy “vegan” foods. 

    • Healthy vegan foods that can be bad for your bones include.
      • Pinto beans, navy beans, and peas because they contain phytates.
      • Raw spinach & swiss chard because they contain oxalates.
      • Both phytates and oxalates bind calcium and interfere with its absorption.
      • These foods can be part of a healthy vegan diet, but a vegan expert consumes them in moderation.
    • Unhealthy “vegan” foods that are bad for your bones include sodas, salt, sugar, and alcohol.
      • The mechanisms are complex, but these foods all tend to dissolve bone.
      • A vegan expert minimizes them in their diet.

5) You need more than diet for healthy bones. At the beginning of this article, I talked about the 3 Weight Trainingessentials for bone formation – calcium, vitamin D, and exercise. You can have the healthiest vegan diet in the world, but if you aren’t getting enough weight bearing exercise, you will have low bone density. Let me close with 3 quick thoughts:

    • None of the studies included in this meta-analysis measured how much exercise the study participants were getting.
    • The individual studies were generally carried out in industrialized countries where many people get insufficient exercise.
    • The DV for calcium in the United States is 1,000-1,200 mg/day for adults. In more agrarian societies dietary calcium intake is around 500 mg/day, and osteoporosis is almost nonexistent. What is the difference? These are people who are outside (vitamin D) doing heavy manual labor (exercise) in their farms and pastures every day.

In summary, a bone healthy vegan lifestyle isn’t easy, but it is possible if you work at it.

The Bottom Line 

A recent meta-analysis asked two important questions about vegan diets.

  1.     Do vegans have lower bone density than omnivores?

2) Is the difference in bone density clinically significant? Are vegans more likely to suffer from bone fractures?

The study found that:

  • Vegans had 5.5%–7% lower bone density than omnivores depending on where the bone density was measured.
  • Vegans were 44% more likely to suffer from bone fractures than omnivores.

The authors of the study concluded, ““The findings of this study suggest that…vegan diets are associated with lower bone density compared with omnivorous diets, and vegans have a higher fracture risk than omnivores…Vegan diets should be appropriate planned to avoid dietary deficiencies associated with bone health.”

In evaluating the results of this study, I took a detailed look at the pros and cons of vegan diets and concluded, “A bone healthy vegan lifestyle isn’t easy, but it is possible if you work at it.”

For more details about study and my recommendations for a bone healthy vegan lifestyle read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Does Poverty Affect Nutritional Status?

How Can We Improve Nutrition In Disadvantaged Communities?

Calcium FoodsRecently there has been increased focus on health disparities in disadvantaged communities. In our discussions of the cause of these health disparities, two questions seem to be ignored.

1. Does poverty play a role in poor nutrition?

2. Does poor nutrition play a role in the health disparities we see in disadvantaged communities?

The study (K Marshall et al, PLoS One 15(7):e0235042) I discuss in this week’s “Health Tips From The Professor” attempts to address both of these questions.

Before, I start, let me put this study into context.

  • Osteoporosis is a major health problem in this country. Over 2 million osteoporosis-related fractures occur each year, and they cost our health care system over 19 billion dollars a year. Even worse, for many Americans these osteoporosis-related fractures often cause:
    • A permanent reduction in quality of life.
    • Immobility, which can lead to premature death.
  • Inadequate calcium and vitamin D intakes increase the risk of osteoporosis.

While most studies simply report calcium and vitamin D intakes for the general population, this study breaks them down according to ethnicity and income levels. The results were revealing.

How Was The Study Done?

Clinical StudyThis study drew on data from the 2007-2010 and 2013-2014 National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES). These surveys are conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics, which is part of the CDC. They are designed to assess the health and nutritional status of adults and children in the United States and are used to produce health statistics for the nation.

The NHANES interview includes demographic, socioeconomic, dietary, and health-related questions. The examination component consists of medical, dental, and physiological measurements, as well as laboratory tests administered by highly trained medical personnel. All participants visit a physician. Dietary interviews and body measurements are included for everyone.

This study measured calcium intake, vitamin D intake, and osteoporosis for adults 50 and older. The data were separated by gender, ethnic group and income level. Four different measures of poverty were used. For purposes of simplicity, I will only use one of them, income beneath $20,000, for this article.

Does Poverty Affect Nutritional Status?

The Effect of Ethnicity And Gender On Calcium And Vitamin D Intake: 

FriendsWhen the authors looked at the effect of ethnicity and gender on calcium and vitamin D intake, in people aged 50 and older the results were (Note: I am using the same ethnic nomenclature used in the article):

Hispanics:

    • 66% (75% for women and 56% for men) were getting inadequate calcium intake.
    • 47% (47% for women and 47% for men) were getting inadequate vitamin D intake.

Non-Hispanic Blacks:

    • 75% (83% for women and 64% for men) were getting inadequate calcium intake.
    • 53% (51% for women and 54% for men) were getting inadequate vitamin D intake.

Non-Hispanic Whites:

    • 60% (64% for women and 49% for men) were getting inadequate calcium intake.
    • 33% (30% for women and 37% for men) were getting inadequate vitamin D intake.

For simplicity, we can generalize these data by saying:

Gender:

    • Women are more likely to be calcium-deficient than men.
    • Men are more likely to be vitamin D-deficient than women.

Ethnicity: For both genders and for both calcium and vitamin D:

    • The rank order for deficiency is Non-Hispanic Blacks > Hispanics > Non-Hispanic Whites.

The Effect Of Poverty On Calcium Intake, Vitamin D Intake, And Osteoporosis:

PovertyWhen looking at the effect of poverty, the authors asked to what extent poverty (defined as income below $20,000/year) increased the risk of calcium and vitamin D deficiency in adults over 50. Here is a summary of the data

Hispanics:

    • For both Hispanic women and Hispanic men, poverty had little effect on the risk of calcium and vitamin D deficiency.

Non-Hispanic Blacks:

    • For Non-Hispanic Black women, poverty had little effect on the risk of calcium deficiency, and vitamin D deficiency.
    • For Non-Hispanic Black men, poverty increased the risk of both calcium and vitamin D deficiency by 32%.

Non-Hispanic Whites:

    • For Non-Hispanic White women, poverty had little effect on the risk of calcium deficiency but increased the risk of vitamin D deficiency by 30%.
    • For Non-Hispanic White men, poverty increased the risk of both calcium deficiency and vitamin D deficiency by 18%.

For simplicity, we can generalize these data by saying:

    • Poverty increased the risk of both calcium and vitamin D deficiency for Non-Hispanic Black men, Non-Hispanic White women, and Non-Hispanic White men.

Other statistics of interest:

  • The SNAP program (formerly known as Food Stamps) had little effect on calcium and vitamin D intake. There are probably two reasons for this:
    • In the words of the authors, “While the SNAP program has been shown to decrease levels of food insecurity, the quality of the food consumed by SNAP participants does not meet the standards for a healthy diet.” In other words, the SNAP program ensures that participants have enough to eat, but SNAP participants are just as likely to prefer junk and convenience foods as the rest of the American population. The SNAP program provides no incentive to eat healthy foods.
    • We also need to remember that dairy foods are a major source of calcium and vitamin D in the American diet and that Hispanics and Non-Hispanic Blacks are more likely to be lactose-intolerant than the rest of the American population. There are other sources of calcium and vitamin D in the American diet. But without some nutrition education, most Americans are unaware of what they are.
  • An increased risk of osteoporosis was found in Non-Hispanic Black men, and Non-Hispanic Whites with incomes below $20,000/year.
    • This increased risk of osteoporosis was seen primarily for the individuals in each group who were deficient in calcium and vitamin D. There were other factors involved, but I will focus primarily on the effect of poverty on calcium and vitamin D intake in the discussion below.

How Can We Improve Nutrition In Disadvantaged Communities?

Questioning WomanLet’s start with the two questions I posed at the beginning of this article:

1. Does poverty play a role in poor nutrition?

2. Does poor nutrition play a role in the health disparities we see in disadvantaged communities?

In terms of calcium intake, vitamin D intake, and the risk of osteoporosis, the answer to both questions appears to be, “Yes”. So, the question becomes, “What can we do?”

It is when we start to ask what we can do to increase calcium and vitamin D intake and decreased the risk of osteoporosis in disadvantaged communities that we realize the complexity of the problem. There are no easy answers. Let’s look at some of the possibilities.

[Note: I am focusing on what we can do to prevent osteoporosis, not to detect or treat osteoporosis. The solutions for those issues would be slightly different.]

1. We could increase funding for SNAP. That would increase the quantity of food available for low income families, but, as noted above, would do little to improve the quality of the food eaten.

2. We could improve access to health care in disadvantaged communities. But unless physicians started asking their patients what they eat and start recommending a calcium and vitamin D supplement when appropriate, this would also have little impact on diet quality.

3. We could improve nutrition education. A colleague of mine in the UNC School of Public Health ran a successful program of nutrition education through churches and community centers in disadvantaged communities for many years. The program taught people how to eat healthy on a limited budget. Her program improved the health of many people in disadvantaged communities.

However, the program was funded through grants. When she retired, federal and state money to support the program eventually dried up. The program she started is a model for what we should be doing.

4. The authors suggested food fortification as a solution. In essence, they were suggesting that junk and convenience foods be fortified with calcium and vitamin D. That might help, but I don’t think it is a good idea.

If we want to improve the overall health of disadvantaged communities, we need to find ways to replace junk and convenience foods with healthier foods. Adding a few extra nutrients to unhealthy foods does not make them healthy.

5. The authors also said that a calcium and vitamin D supplement would be a cheap and convenient way to eliminate calcium and vitamin D deficiencies. Unfortunately, supplements are currently not included in the SNAP program. Unless that is changed, even inexpensive supplements are a difficult choice for families below the poverty line.

As I said at the beginning of this section, there are no easy answers. It is easy to identify the problem. It would be easy to throw money at the problem. But finding workable solutions that could make a real difference are hard to identify.

Yes, we should make sure every American has enough to eat. Yes, we should make sure every American has access to health care. But, if we really want to improve the health of our disadvantaged communities, we also need to:

  • Change the focus of our health care system from treatment of disease to prevention of disease.
  • Train doctors to ask their patients what they eat and to instruct their patients how simple changes in diet could dramatically improve their health.
  • Provide basic nutrition education to disadvantaged communities at places where they gather, like churches and community centers. This would cover topics like eating healthy, shopping healthy on a limited budget, and cooking healthy.

We don’t necessarily need another massive federal program. But those of us with the knowledge could each volunteer to share that knowledge in disadvantaged communities.

  • Cover basic supplements, like multivitamins, calcium and vitamin D supplements, and omega-3 supplements in food assistance programs like SNAP.

The Bottom Line

Osteoporosis is a major health problem in this country. Over 2 million osteoporosis-related fractures occur each year, and they cost our health care system over 19 billion dollars a year. Even worse, for many Americans these osteoporosis-related fractures often cause:

  • A permanent reduction in quality of life.
  • Immobility, which can lead to premature death.

We know that inadequate calcium and vitamin D intakes increase the risk of osteoporosis. But most studies simply report calcium and vitamin D intakes for the general population. At the beginning of this article, I posed two questions.

  1.  Does poverty play a role in poor nutrition?

2. Does poor nutrition play a role in the health disparities we see in disadvantaged communities?

A recent study looked at the effect of gender, ethnicity and income levels on calcium intake, vitamin D intake, and the risk of developing osteoporosis. The results of this study shed some light on those two questions.

When looking at the effect of gender and ethnicity on the risk of inadequate calcium and vitamin D intake, the study found:

  • Women are more likely to be calcium-deficient than men.
  • Men are more likely to be vitamin D-deficient than women.
  • For both genders and for both calcium and vitamin D, the rank order for deficiency is Non-Hispanic Blacks > Hispanics > Non-Hispanic Whites. [Note: Note: I am using the same ethnic nomenclature used in the study.]
  • Poverty (defined as incomes below $25,000/year) significantly increased the risk of both calcium and vitamin D deficiency for Non-Hispanic Black men, Non-Hispanic White women, and Non-Hispanic White men.
  • An increased risk of osteoporosis was also found in Non-Hispanic Black men, and Non-Hispanic White men and women with incomes below $20,000/year.
  • This increased risk of osteoporosis was seen primarily for the individuals in each group who were deficient in calcium and vitamin D.

In short, this study suggests that the answer to both questions I posed at the beginning of the article is, “Yes”.

For more information and a discussion of what we could do to correct this health disparity in disadvantaged communities, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Preventing And Reversing Osteoporosis

A Bone Health Lifestyle

Author: Julie Donnelly, LMT – The Pain Relief Expert

Editor: Dr. Steve Chaney

Woman Enjoying Autumn LeavesFall is glorious in my book.  I was up in New York a few weeks ago, and the trees were just changing – I was about a week too early for the best colors, but it was still beautiful. Then I flew out to Lake Tahoe, and it was really beautiful there.  The air was crisp and clean, and I loved all the fall decorations.

In Florida we are entering our most wonderful time of year. It’s starting to get cooler, the humidity is going down, and hurricane season is over. Hooray!  It’s great to be outdoors again!

Please remember all the people who are still going through very difficult times in the Bahamas.  Many people have lost their homes, their workplaces and the income that supports them, and some have lost loved ones. A devastating loss.

We here in the USA were blessed that Dorian didn’t come any further west and do the same thing to Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas. I wanted to share what I have with the people who now have nothing. That made me search for places I trust that will send all the money I donate. In case you want to help, and you don’t have a favorite charity, I want to share those places with you:

https://disaster.salvationarmyusa.org

http://secure.americares.org/help/now‎

https://www.mercycorps.org/articles/hurricane-dorian-bahamas#mercy-corps-helping

Preventing And Reversing Osteoporosis

Exercise And NutritionWeight-bearing exercise builds strong bones. That statement is so common that just about everyone knows they need to exercise for strong muscles and bones, and for all the good it does for just about every system in the body.  And, we are what we eat, so nutrition is vital.

Do you like to exercise? Some people are almost addicted to exercise, but I’m not one of them.  I go to the gym and I have a fitness trainer to help me stay on track, but it fits right in with my eagerness of going to the dentist.  I must say, I’d like that to change, and maybe if I can find a workout partner, it will.

Meanwhile I need to do something because I’ve been told I have osteoporosis. Yikes! One thing for sure, I’m not taking any type of medication. I truly believe there is another solution.

While I’m not an exercise nut, I do love nutrition and I know that the body is so adaptable that if it’s given the proper nutrition, it can do miracles. I believe nutrition and exercise can reverse this osteoporosis diagnosis.

A Bone Healthy Lifestyle

A Bone Healthy Lifestyle
A Bone Healthy Lifestyle

The first thing I did was contact my friend, Steve Chaney, PhD, author of the weekly blog “Health Tips From The Professor.  He pointed me to an article he had written on a “Bone Healthy Lifestyle”. Here is a brief summary:

  • Exercise, calcium, and vitamin D are all essential for bone formation. If any of them are missing, you can’t form healthy bone. The reason so many clinical studies on calcium supplementation and bone density have come up empty is that exercise, or vitamin D, or both were not included in the study.
  • Get plenty of weight bearing exercise. This is an essential part of a bone healthy lifestyle. Your local Y can probably give you guidance if you can’t afford a personal trainer. Of course, if you have physical limitations or have a disease, you should consult with your health professional before beginning any exercise program.
  • Get your blood 25-hydroxy vitamin D level tested. If it is low, take enough supplemental vitamin D to get your 25-hydroxy vitamin D level into the adequate range – optimal is even better. Adequate blood levels of 25-hydroxy vitamin D are also essential for you to be able to utilize calcium efficiently.
  • Consume a “bone healthy” diet that emphasizes fresh fruits and vegetables, minimizes meats, and eliminates sodas and other acidic beverages. For more details on whether your favorite foods are acid-forming or alkaline-forming, you can find plenty of charts on the internet.
  • Minimize the use of medications that adversely affect bone density. You’ll need to work with your doctor on this one.
  • Consider a calcium supplement. Even when you are doing everything else correctly, you still need adequate calcium in your diet to form strong bones. Dr. Chaney wasn’t advocating a “one-size fits all” 1,000 to 1,200 mg/day for everyone. Supplementation is always most effective when you actually need it. For example:

o   If you are not including dairy products in your diet (either because they are acid-forming or for other health reasons), it will be difficult for you to get adequate amounts of calcium in your diet. You can get calcium from other food sources such as green leafy vegetables. However, unless you plan your diet very carefully you will probably not get enough.

o   If you are taking medications that decrease bone density, that may increase your need for supplemental calcium. Ask your pharmacist about the effect of any medications you are taking on your calcium requirements.

  • If you do use a calcium supplement, make sure it is complete. Don’t just settle for calcium and vitamin D. At the very least you will want your supplement to contain magnesium and vitamin K. Dr. Chaney recommends that it also contain zinc, copper, and manganese.

Between increasing my exercise and ramping up all the nutrients that build bone, I just know that by this time next year I’m going to be surprising the doctor with my great health

Health Tips From The Professor