There are plenty of benefits to going vegetarian or vegan. In addition to the moral arguments for ditching meat, eating a diet rich in plant-based foods can also support your immune system, improve your heart health, and even extend your life span.
Unfortunately, there are some downsides to meatless diets as well. A new longitudinal study from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) at Oxford University has found that people who don’t eat meat, especially vegans, are at a significantly higher risk for bone fractures. (Related: 8 Grocery Items That May Soon Be in Short Supply.)
Looking at medical records of almost 55,000 healthy individuals—a mix of meat eaters, pescatarians, vegetarians, and vegans—over an average of 18 years, the researchers identified 3,941 bone fractures. Of these, vegans with lower calcium and protein intakes sustained 43% more bone fractures than meat eaters.
Those numbers get more extreme when you look at specific kinds of fractures. Vegans were a whopping 2.3 times more likely to sustain hip fractures than their meat-eating counterparts and twice as likely to sustain leg fractures. Pescatarians and vegetarians aren’t spared either: pescatarians are 26% and vegetarians 25% more likely to suffer fractured hips than meat eaters.
The good news for vegans is that there are steps they can take to improve their bone health. In fact, supplements for frequently-missed nutrients like calcium and protein are key to a healthy vegan diet. Lead study author Tammy Tong explains to New Scientist, “Unless they are actively supplementing, it’s quite unlikely that vegans will have a sufficient intake of calcium just from the diet.”
In fact, the disparity between the amount of fractures decreased significantly when researchers took into account the different levels of calcium and protein in participants’ diets and factored in their BMI (vegans tend to have lower BMIs, which can increase fracture risk.) So if your diet is light on meat, making sure that you get enough protein and calcium and that you keep your weight up in the healthy range can seriously improve your bone health.
For more on how to get key nutrients while sticking to a plant-based diet, check out our dietitian-recommended Supplements Vegans Need in Their Diet. And don’t forget to sign up for our newsletter to get the latest health and diet news delivered straight to your inbox.