Can ‘clean eating’ increase osteoporosis risk?

Clean eating

There is a growing trend among young people for ‘clean eating’, which involves following a highly restrictive diet and cutting out food groups such as dairy.

Clean eating is a far-reaching phenomenon, with four in ten people aged between 18 and 24 claiming to have tried it in some form. New research from the National Osteoporosis Society shows that the fad could be dangerous for bone health. 

The study points to a lack calcium in popular ‘clean eating’ diets. It warns of broken bones in the short term and an increased risk of developing osteoporosis in the future1.

What is clean eating?

Clean eating is a recent health craze, fuelled by celebrities and social media influencers who have amassed huge followings on Instagram, YouTube and blog sites. There is no one specific diet espoused by the clean eaters. Many recommend cutting out foods such as gluten, dairy or refined sugars, while others vilify processed food. The aim for many is to eat only ‘clean’ foods such as vegetables, protein and whole grains2.

What’s the issue?

Clean eating has attracted its fair share of bad press, since experts and researchers have warned of the health dangers of following a hyper-restrictive diet. Many of the prominent figures originally leaders of the clean eating trend have distanced themselves from it since it has become associated with unhealthy, disordered eating2.

Clean eating and bone health

The National Osteoporosis Society (NOS) has expressed concern about clean eating. After conducting research, they found that 18-24 are most likely to have tried clean eating and 70% of those aged 18 to 35 were on or had been on a diet1 .Two in ten people in this age bracket have cut or severely restricted their intake of dairy products such as milk and cheese. 

Clean eating

This is problematic because bones are still developing in early adulthood, and need calcium to grow strong. Without enough calcium in their diet, young people can do irreversible harm to their bones1

The NOS has described clean eating as a “ticking time bomb”, with Professor Susan Lanham-New, Clinical Advisor to the National Osteoporosis Society and Professor of Nutrition at the University of Surrey, explaining: “by the time we get into our late twenties it is too late to reverse the damage caused by poor diet and nutrient deficiencies and the opportunity to build strong bones has passed.”

For people in their teens and early twenties, a calcium-poor diet increases the risk of broken bones in the immediate and long-term future. There are many possible complications associated with broken bones, and the risk of these increases with age. In addition, a calcium deficiency could put young people at risk of osteoporosis later in life3.

Osteoporosis in brief

Osteoporosis is a condition which weakens bones and makes them fragile and more susceptible to fractures. Losing some bone density is a natural part of getting older, but in people with osteoporosis it happens too quickly. 

Currently, it affects more than 3 million people in the UK - half of all women and one in five men develop osteoporosis above the age of 504.

Eating to keep bones healthy

Getting enough calcium and vitamin D is one of the main ways to keep bones strong and healthy, and reduce the risk of developing osteoporosis. That’s why cutting dairy from the diet can be so damaging, if you don’t replace it. However, there are plenty of non-dairy sources of calcium and vitamin D including leafy green vegetables such as broccoli and okra, and calcium can be found in tofu and soya4.

Other health risks of clean eating

Clean eating doesn’t just pose a risk to bone health, it can also have a negative impact on mental health. An eating disorder known as orthorexia nervosa, a “fixation with righteous eating”, describes the obsession many young people have with the strict rules of clean eating. While it isn’t a clinical diagnosis, a number of dieticians and mental health experts and charities have reported a rise in the number of young people displaying this kind of disordered eating5.

Concerned about your diet?

Eating a healthy diet is crucial to keeping your mind and body well and reducing your risk of developing all kinds of conditions including osteoporosis. If you’re concerned about your diet and need more guidance on how to eat healthily, a dietary consultation with a specialist could be the perfect thing to get you on track. You can find out more about the science of nutrition, and how it can support your overall health and wellbeing, here. For more information on osteoporosis, you can read our consultant Q&A, where they discuss symptoms and treatment.

To find out more call us on 0808 101 0337 or
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