Good News About Vegan Bone Health

Just published this month in the journal Osteoporosis International, a new study revealed that bone health was similar between vegan Buddhist nuns and omnivore women even though the vegans had much lower intakes of calcium and protein.

The study involved 105 vegan nuns and 105 omnivore women in Viet Nam. Average calcium intake was 375 mg per day for the vegans and 682 mg for the omnivores. (Some of the vegan women did use very small amounts of milk in meals.) Vegan women also had low protein intakes averaging around 35 grams per day compared to more moderate intakes of 62 grams for the omnivores.

Bone density between the two groups was similar—slightly lower in the vegans, but not to an extent that was statistically significant. Prevalence of osteoporosis was slightly higher among the vegans. Overall, there was little difference between the two groups.

Before you toss your calcium supplements out the window, though, there are a few things to keep in mind. Many factors—diet, lifestyle, and genetics—affect bone health. We can’t automatically make recommendations for western vegans based on this study. Other studies have shown bone density to be lower in vegans compared to omnivores when calcium intakes were different.

This study adds to the pile of interesting—but confusing—data we have on bone health and diet. Personally, I am still aiming for 1,000 mg of calcium per day along with lots of exercise, plenty of vitamin D and a moderate sodium intake. At least until the data are more clear and more compelling. What is clear however, is that bone health is complex; it’s not all about calcium.

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4 Responses to Good News About Vegan Bone Health

  1. Eating Consciously April 16, 2009 at 4:04 pm #

    This is fascinating. Doesn’t the WHO only recommend 500mg of calcium?

  2. veganola April 20, 2009 at 1:10 pm #

    Is this really good? The level of osteoporosis in dairy-consuming women is pretty high, no?

  3. Ginny Messina April 20, 2009 at 2:07 pm #

    I’m not sure what the WHO recommendations are now, but I think they are a little bit higher than 500 mg. Most recommendations fall somewhere between 700 and 1,000 for adults. It’s been so difficult to ascertain actual calcium requirements, and there is probably a huge range among individuals, so I’m inclined to err on the side of caution.

    But yes–osteoporosis is definitely pretty prevalent among dairy consuming women. But it’s hard to figure out what it means since many women who consume dairy don’t meet calcium recommendations and there are also genetic and cultural issues that factor into osteoporosis risk. So I don’t know…It can’t hurt to get 1,000 mg of calcium and I don’t want to get osteoporosis!!

    ~Ginny

  4. Jacqueline May 27, 2009 at 7:45 pm #

    Hi, Google brought me here as I look for bone health info for vegetarians. I just wanted to comment that from what I’ve read, calcium and protein are just two players in the very complex production of healthy bones. Maybe that’s why the rates were so similar — vegans were compensating with the other nutrients — vitamin K, certain phenols, etc. that really helped their bones. Here’s a helpful list of 20 key bone-building nutrients — an overview

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David Turbyfill . Dr. David Turbyfill
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