Carotenoids Lower Osteoporosis Risk

Your list of reasons to eat vegetables may not include bone health — but perhaps it should, now that we have new evidence demonstrating that antioxidant pigments in fresh produce protect against bone loss and hip fractures in older people.

At Tufts University, Boston University and Hebrew SeniorLife in Boston, Tufts professor Katherine L. Tucker, PhD, and her colleagues examined data from 370 men and 576 women, average age 75 and all Caucasian, enrolled in the long-term Framingham Osteoporosis Study. Over a 17-year period, the participants regularly filled out food questionnaires. A hundred of them reported fracturing their hips during this time.

Looking at total and individual carotenoid intake, investigators found that…

  • People who consumed the most total carotenoids from foods like tomatoes, carrots, sweet potatoes and cantaloupe experienced a significantly lower risk of hip fractures.
  • Those who consumed the most lycopene — a carotenoid commonly found in tomatoes and watermelon — likewise had a lower rate of hip fractures and non-vertebral fractures.
  • Beta-carotene — abundant in carrots, sweet potatoes, mangoes, papayas, etc. — had a small, statistically insignificant protective effect, but only against hip fractures.
  • Alpha-carotene, beta-cryptoxanthin and lutein plus zeaxanthin did not demonstrate any independent protective effect.

Tucker told me her team previously published other research affirming a relationship between carotenoids and bone mineral density, indicating that lycopene, beta-carotene and total carotenoids — along with lutein and zeaxanthin, for men — are protective.

Tucker believes that the protective impact of carotenoids is derived from their antioxidant activity, as antioxidant pigments block oxidative stress that contributes to bone loss. Study results were published in the June 2009 issue of the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research.

Strengthen Bones Naturally Through Diet

According to Tucker, the carotenoids most strongly associated with both bone density and reduced fracture risk come from red, orange, yellow and dark green fruits and vegetables. Though some fruits and vegetables are more helpful than others, generally speaking, the more you eat, the better your bones will fare. To strengthen your bones and prevent fractures, Tucker advises eating more than the recommended “Five a Day.” I also asked her about supplements, but in her view there’s nothing like the real thing since it is most likely the synergistic impact of the various polyphenolic compounds and nutrients in fruits and vegetables that confers the greatest bone protection.