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Photo: Physiologist Marta Van Loan (right) and chemist Erik Gertz examine a tray of serum samples to be analyzed for markers of bone formation and resorption. Link to photo information
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Effects of Food on Bone Health Probed

By Marcia Wood
March 25, 2003

New clues about how foods affect the health of the human body's bones are emerging from ongoing Agricultural Research Service studies in northern California. A unique investigation that scientists recently finished analyzing compared the bone health of vegan women--who don't eat meat, poultry or dairy products--with that of omnivore women, who do.

Research physiologist Marta D. Van Loan at the ARS Western Human Nutrition Research Center, Davis, Calif., and her university colleagues recruited 48 healthy, nonsmoking women, aged 18 to 40, as volunteers for the 10-month study. Of this, 22 were vegans, and 26 were omnivores.

This study and other bone-health investigations at the center are designed to reveal nutrition-based ways to reduce the risk of osteoporosis. This disease causes dense, healthy bones to become weak, thin, porous and more likely to fracture. An estimated 10 million Americans have osteoporosis. Another 28 million are at risk.

In contrast to what previous research with omnivore volunteers had suggested, Van Loan and colleagues found that the rate at which calcium was removed from bones was the same for omnivore women as for the vegan women. The finding runs counter to a well-known theory that individuals who eat animal-derived foods will likely lose more calcium from their bones.

The second unexpected finding indicated that the vegan volunteers formed new bone at a significantly faster rate than the omnivore volunteers. That happened even though the omnivore volunteers were taking in more calcium than the vegans. Both the omnivores and the vegans took in about the same amount of other bone-building nutrients, such as magnesium.

Details are in ARS' Agricultural Research magazine.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.