- People who do not consume meat are more likely to suffer a bone fracture due to lower intake of calcium and protein, according to a new study by the University of Oxford published in the journal BMC Medicine. The study found vegetarians had 4.1 more cases of fractures per 1,000 people while vegans had 19.4 more cases over a decade.
- Dietary information was collected between 1993 and 2001, with a follow-up in 2010. Participants continued to be monitored through linkage to hospital records or death certificates until mid-2016. "This is the first prospective study of diet group with both total and multiple specific fracture sites in vegetarians and vegans, and the findings suggest that bone health in vegans requires further research," the study concluded.
- Plant-based diets are exploding in popularity as consumers associate eating less meat as being better for their health and the environment. Surveys, such as one by the International Food Information Council, have found 45% of respondents said plant-based alternative protein was healthier than animal meat, signifying that this belief is becoming widely entrenched in the consumer consciousness.
As plant-based offerings grow in popularity, it’s not only consumers who believe they are healthier than conventional meat. There are studies to support this view. In July, a study published by the JAMA Network found substituting animal protein for plant protein is associated with a double-digit reduction in mortality risk and cardiovascular diseases.
Consumer perception of the category as being healthier has resulted in the number of people claiming to be plant-based eaters to grow steadily. According to a Top Trends in Prepared Foods report published in 2017, 6% of the U.S. population identified as vegan, up from just 1% in 2014.
But despite a growing belief in the positive health benefits of a more plant-centric diet, not all studies support this conclusion. The University of Oxford study is the latest to cast doubt about at least some of its far-reaching positive attributes. A multinational research team found last year there is insufficient scientific evidence for consumers to reduce the consumption of red meat for health reasons. At the same time, not all dietitians agree plant-based alternatives are healthier than meat, with many saying the amounts of sodium and saturated fat in plant-based burgers can be about the same as those made of beef.
The Oxford University study falls into the latter camp that claims a plant-based diet may not be as beneficial for personal health as consumers widely believe. While this study acknowledged more work needs to be done in this area to confirm the findings and identify the reasons why those that don’t eat meat are more prone to fractures, the study did note there are several dietary factors, including substantially lower intakes of calcium in vegans, lower intakes of dietary protein in both vegetarians and vegans, and the lower body mass index (BMI) of non-meat eaters that may contribute to this finding. Calcium and protein are critical for bone strength.
While this study was large in terms of both assessed population and timeframe, it primarily involved only white, European women, making a wide generalization of the study more difficult.
Nevertheless, the findings are likely to be welcomed by the meat industry. While the animal protein sector remains dominant in the U.S., the plant-based protein industry is gaining ground. The Good Food Institute said last year investors have put more than $16 billion into U.S. plant-based and cell-based meat companies in the past 10 years — $13 billion of it in 2017 and 2018 alone. The pandemic has only spurred growth for these faux meat alternatives. Plant-based meat sales were up 148% versus 2019, and sales grew twice as fast as conventional equivalents during the 16 weeks ended April 19.
It is unlikely this study alone will tip the scales back in favor of animal-based protein. However, it may spur plant-based protein companies to fund their own studies to bulk-up the library of studies supporting the health of plant-based protein solutions. Consumers also may be more likely to incorporate more plants into their diets without forgoing meat altogether in order to maintain some of the health attributes associated with each category.