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Photo: A variety of colorful fruits and vegetables.
Plant pigments commonly found in colorful fruits and vegetables appear to have a protective effect against bone loss in older adults, according to a new study. Photo courtesy of National Institutes of Health.

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Nutrient Supports Bone Health Over Time

By Rosalie Marion Bliss
January 14, 2009

Findings from a new study suggest that natural pigments found in plants may help protect against bone loss in older men and women. Researchers funded by the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) reported the findings in a paper published online by The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

The study was led by epidemiologist Katherine Tucker with the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) at Tufts University in Boston, Mass. Tucker directs the HNRCA's Dietary Assessment and Epidemiology Research Program.

Other studies have consistently shown that fruit and vegetable intake is good for bones. Biological antioxidants in fruits and vegetables, such as carotenoids, protect cells and tissues from damage caused by naturally occurring oxygen free radicals in the body. Such plant nutrients may help protect the skeleton by reducing oxidative stress and thereby inhibiting bone breakdown or resorption.

The researchers examined potential effects on bone mineral density of overall and individual intake of several carotenoid compounds, including alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, beta-cryptoxanthin, lycopene and lutein+zeaxanthin.

For the observational study, the researchers tracked changes in bone mineral density at two areas of the hip and lumbar spine of male and female volunteers, aged 75 years on average, participating in the Framingham Osteoporosis Study. Among these volunteers, 213 men and 390 women were measured at the beginning of the study and four years later.

Over the course of the four years of the study, carotenoids were associated with some level of protection against losses in bone mineral density at the hip in men and at the lumbar spine in women. No significant associations were observed at the other bone sites.

The results suggest there is a protective effect of carotenoids, particularly of lycopene, against bone loss in older adults. The researchers concluded that carotenoids may explain, in part, the previously observed protective effects of fruit and vegetable consumption on bone mineral density.

To look up the levels of individual carotenoids in selected foods, go to "Reports By Single Nutrients," provided by the ARS Nutrient Data Laboratory at:

ARS is a scientific research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.