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Osteoporos Int. 2004 Sep;15(9):679-88. Epub 2004 Jul 16.

Do vegetarians have a normal bone mass?

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Centre for Nutrition and Food Safety, School of Biomedical and Molecular Sciences, University of Surrey, GU2 7XH, Guildford, UK.


Public health strategies targeting the prevention of poor bone health on a population-wide basis are urgently required, with particular emphasis being placed on modifiable factors such as nutrition. The aim of this review was to assess the impact of a vegetarian diet on indices of skeletal integrity to address specifically whether vegetarians have a normal bone mass. Analysis of existing literature, through a combination of observational, clinical and intervention studies were assessed in relation to bone health for the following: lacto-ovo-vegetarian and vegan diets versus omnivorous, predominantly meat diets, consumption of animal versus vegetable protein, and fruit and vegetable consumption. Mechanisms of action for a dietary "component" effect were examined and other potential dietary differences between vegetarians and non-vegetarians were also explored. Key findings included: (i) no differences in bone health indices between lacto-ovo-vegetarians and omnivores; (ii) conflicting data for protein effects on bone with high protein consumption (particularly without supporting calcium/alkali intakes) and low protein intake (particularly with respect to vegan diets) being detrimental to the skeleton; (iii) growing support for a beneficial effect of fruit and vegetable intake on bone, with mechanisms of action currently remaining unclarified. The impact of a "vegetarian" diet on bone health is a hugely complex area since: 1) components of the diet (such as calcium, protein, alkali, vitamin K, phytoestrogens) may be varied; 2) key lifestyle factors which are important to bone (such as physical activity) may be different; 3) the tools available for assessing consumption of food are relatively weak. However, from data available and given the limitations stipulated above, "vegetarians" do certainly appear to have "normal" bone mass. What remains our challenge is to determine what components of a vegetarian diet are of particular benefit to bone, at what levels and under which mechanisms.

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