Adolescence is an important time in laying the foundation for healthy bones that can protect a person from later-life osteoporosis risk. Calcium, of course, is one of the key nutrients that make up the bone matrix, but there are many other nutrients and lifestyle factors that also play a role and they are known to interact.
Physical activity, vitamin D, genetics, smoking, alcohol, body weight and hormone levels all influence bone health. Surprisingly though, little is known how different dietary patterns followed during adolescence can affect bone health later on in life.
Canadian researchers have recently looked at adolescent diets and later-life bone health in 125 males and females from the age of around 12 years to their late 20s. Bone health was assessed by measures of bone mineral content and bone mineral density.
The research team identified five distinct dietary patterns. The first was a vegetarian-style diet that was high in dark green vegetables, eggs, wholegrains, legumes, nuts and seeds, fruits and low-fat milk (including non-dairy milk). A Western-like diet was associated with higher intakes of fruit drinks, refined grains, cream, poultry and processed meats. The third type of diet was a high fat, high protein diet.
The fourth was a mixed diet characterised by a high intake of yoghurt, cheese, desserts and sweets, fish and seafood and fruit juice. And finally a snack dietary pattern high in dressings and sauces, chips and chicken and low in dark-green vegetables and low in cheese.
It was the vegetarian style eating pattern that showed the clearest positive link with good bone health into adulthood and that was after allowing for confounding factors such as sex, physical activity, total energy intake and many other factors. None of the other dietary patterns appeared to be predictive of later-life bone health.
Within those eating a vegetarian style diet, adolescents eating most closely to the described pattern had the highest bone density and bone mineral content.
The small sample size is an obvious limitation of this new study as too the accuracy of the diet records collected in adolescence which relied on a recall method.
There are many positives to a vegetarian style eating pattern on health. This new study supports the idea that a diverse and well-balanced mostly plant-based diet during adolescence can have a beneficial impact on bone health and this carries over into a positive influence on bone accumulation into young adulthood.