Men who adopt a vegetarian diet are 50 per cent more likely to break a hip than their meat-eating peers, a study has found.
Women have long been known to suffer some frailty problems if they adopt a meat-free diet, but the link has never been seen in men before.
A University of Leeds study of UK Biobank data of more than 400,000 people found less than one in 100 of the middle-aged participants suffered a hip fracture.
But despite the absolute risk being low, the data found a large discrepancy between regular meat-eaters and vegetarians.
Pescetarians and occasional meat-eaters – less than five times a week – were no more likely to suffer breaks than vegetarians, the data shows.
“Hip fractures are a growing problem in an ageing society and can trigger debilitating health conditions and a loss of quality of life,” said James Webster, a doctoral researcher at the University of Leeds who led the study.
“This study shows that whilst vegetarians face a greater risk of hip fracture than meat-eaters – at 50 per cent – this translates to just three more hip fractures per 1,000 people over 10 years.”
Benefits may still outweigh risks
The study found about a quarter of the increased risk afforded to vegetarian men and women were because of a lower BMI among vegetarians.
Webster added that while there is a small increase in overall risk caused by following a plant-based diet, it is still possible that there is a net benefit to being vegetarian.
“The health benefits of a largely vegetarian diet, including a lower risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease, may still outweigh any increases in hip fracture risk,” he said.
“Important messages from our study are that vegetarians need to ensure they are getting a balanced diet with enough protein and maintaining a healthy BMI. This will help vegetarians to maintain healthy bones and muscles.”
Professor Janet Cade, who leads the Nutritional Epidemiology Group at the University of Leeds and supervised the research, said: “Hip fracture is a major health issue, and diet may have a part to play in affecting risk.”
“This research, using the large UK Biobank, confirms our previous work, showing that a vegetarian diet increases [the] risk of hip fracture compared to regular meat-eaters, in both men and women.
“Whilst vegetarian diets have health benefits, understanding diet quality and the balance of key nutrients may help to reduce risk and improve future bone health.”
The study was published in the journal BMC Medicine.