Scraping the barrel

| 14 September 2021
minute reading time

More misleading headlines, this time misrepresenting a study from last year! 

This morning, I said to our PR Manager that I’ve not noticed any new vegan diet scare stories in the news for a while – they usually pop up every week or so. You know the sort of thing: “Going vegan will make your hair fall out, bring on early menopause, make your skin go grey” etc.

She replied by sending me a story in yesterday’s Express with the headline: “The popular diets linked to higher risk of breaking and fracturing bones.” Mid eye-roll, I realised it rang a bell. The study it described was published last year and Viva! posted a review of it back then, pointing out the flaws in the exaggerated news coverage.

In a nutshell, this study found a higher risk of fracture among mainly slim older vegan women. But there were a number of concerns about the study and the results weren’t by any means as straightforward as the Express headline implies. The higher fracture risk of vegans compared to meat-eaters was relatively small – equivalent to just 20 more cases per 1,000 people over 10 years. Women were most affected, particularly postmenopausal women with low physical activity and a low body mass index (BMI).

Because vegans tend to weigh less, it was difficult to match vegans and meat-eaters with a similar BMI to make meaningful comparisons. It is worth remembering that a bit of extra weight may protect your hip from breaking if you fall, but being overweight carries many other significant health risks. Also, there was no information on the causes of the fractures, so this study couldn’t tell if fractures were the result of fragile bones or significant trauma.

It’s also worth pointing out that hormone replacement therapy (HRT) protects against menopausal bone loss and only 5.6 per cent of the vegan women reported taking it, compared to 26.7 per cent of the meat-eating women. HRT was accounted for in the analysis but may still have been a contributing factor. I exchanged emails with the lead author, Dr Tammy Tong, who said that because food intakes were based on what the participants self-reported, there was a possibility of error among all diet groups. She also said vitamin D may have influenced the results, but was not measured. The study authors acknowledged that more research is needed to get a clearer picture of what is going on.


Come come!

So, did the Express editor just decide it was time to publish another “veganism harms health” populist piece and drag up an old story? It clearly wasn’t written with much care and was full of grammatical errors and typos – even in the subheading: “Choosing to forego certain foods, however, may come come at a price…”

But as well as calling Dr Tong “he” the real corker was misquoting her: “We found that vegans had a higher risk of total fractures, which results in close to 20 more cases per 1,000 people over a ten-year period compared to two people who ate meet.” This study included more than just two “meet”-eaters. Lazy journalism at its best!


Cancer risk in vegans

The study came from a group initially set up to examine how diet influences the risk of cancer. In 2014, they found that compared with meat-eaters, cancer incidence was 19 per cent lower in vegans. The results of the US Adventist Health Study II were similar – vegans had a 16 per cent lower risk and vegan women experienced 34 per cent fewer female-specific cancers. This would make a far better story if the Express wants to publicise more past studies!

About the author
Dr. Justine Butler
Justine joined Viva! in 2005 after graduating from Bristol University with a PhD in molecular biology. After working as a campaigner, then researcher and writer, she is now Viva!’s head of research and her work focuses on animals, the environment and health. Justine’s scientific training helps her research and write both in-depth scientific reports, such as White Lies and the Meat Report, as well as easy-to-read factsheets and myth-busting articles for consumer magazines and updates on the latest research. Justine also recently wrote the Vegan for the Planet guide for Viva!’s Vegan Now campaign.

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