Vegetables and Bone Health – Carotenoid Antioxidants Protect Against Bone Loss

By Ralph Sanchez, L.Ac.,CNS,D.Hom.

Vegetables are undeniably a prime source of bone building and strengthening nutrients. Leafy greens and many other vegetables contain a bounty of minerals and vitamin C that are vital to bone metabolism. Kale, collard greens and spinach, are rich in vitamin K; a key cofactor for mineralizing bone tissue. (Please read: Osteoporosis And Bone Health – Why The Optimal Intake Of Vitamin D and K Is More Important Than Calcium Supplementation-Part 2 article) Now, a new study (1-2009) reveals that there is yet another nutrient in fruits and vegetables that is beneficial for bone health. Carotenoids, a naturally occurring pigment found in many vegetables and some fruits, are beneficial for preventing bone loss in both men and women.

Researchers from Tufts University, Hebrew SeniorLife, and Boston University examined dietary carotenoid intake in 334 men and 540 women with an average age of 75. The study was conducted over 4 years, and intakes of total and individual carotenoids, including alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, beta-cryptoxanthin, lycopene, and lutein plus zeaxanthin was measured via a food frequency questionnaire. Hip and lumbar spine bone mass density (BMD)* was evaluated at the beginning and end, and the results showed a higher consumption of the carotenoid lycopene correlated to less bone loss in both sexes. Women had less lumbar spine bone loss, and men had greater bone mineral density in the hips. Better BMD in men was also linked to intakes of total carotenoids, beta-carotene, and lutein plus zeaxanthin. (1)

Bunch of Organic Carrots

While the protective mechanisms of carotenoids from fruit and vegetable intake on bone mass are not clear at this time, it is speculated that it is probably due to their antioxidant benefits. Similar studies have demonstrated a protective effect of fruit and vegetable consumption on bone mineral density. (2) Just this past month (7-09), another study concluded that vitamin C & E supplementation, 600 mg. and 1,000 mg. respectively, were positively correlated to the prevention of osteoporosis. (3) Antioxidants are thought to reduce bone breakdown (resorption) by buffering oxidative stress on bone tissue. However, the carotenoid/BMD study was the first to show that carotenoids, and lycopene in particular, had such positive influence on BMD.

Typically found in red, yellow, and orange color fruits and vegetables, carotenoids are also found in many dark leafy green vegetables as well. Carotenoids are plentiful in carrots, sweet potatoes and yams, spinach, kale, collard greens, corn, cantaloupes and tomatoes. Lycopene, a carotenoid found in tomatoes and other fruits, is more bioavailable if cooked and consumed with fat. Think tomato sauce with olive oil.
However, before you start making a delicious marinara sauce over pasta a regular menu item, be cautious with wheat products and other gluten grains (barley oats and rye). Gluten sensitivity or frank gluten intolerance,** can over time lead to compromised BMD and osteoporosis.

There is a higher incidence of osteoporosis in celiac disease, which is driven by gluten intolerance. Research clearly demonstrates that that a gluten free diet improves bone density in celiac patients and in gluten sensitive/intolerant individuals. However, it is important to understand that gluten related disease processes can occur without any overt gastrointestinal symptoms. Gluten sensitivity and gluten intolerance are frequently undiagnosed, and are often overlooked as the underlying causes to many health disorders.

Please read my article: “Gluten Intolerance-What Your Doctor May Not Tell You” for a thorough review of how gluten sensitivity can cause a host of gluten related health disorders including osteoporosis.

* For a thorough explanation on Bone Mass Density and how to test for it, please review the information @

** From my article on Gluten Intolerance: “The reaction to gluten in sub-clinical gluten intolerance, commonly referred to as “gluten sensitivity”, may be similar to the gluten intolerance in celiac disease, except for the actual degree of presenting symptoms and the damage to the small intestine-if any exists. Typically, gastrointestinal symptoms are absent. However, there are a host of health issues related to gluten sensitivity, such as anemia, fatigue due to malabsorption of nutrients, mood disorders, elevated thyroid antibodies, rheumatic pains or other related autoimmune diseases.”


1. Inverse association of carotenoid intakes with 4-y change in bone mineral density in elderly men and women: the Framingham Osteoporosis Study.

Sahni S, Hannan MT, Blumberg J, Cupples LA, Kiel DP, Tucker KL.

Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 Jan;89(1):416-24.

2. Dietary influences on bone mass and bone metabolism: further evidence of a positive link between fruit and vegetable consumption and bone health?

New SA, Robins SP, Campbell MK, Martin JC, Garton MJ,
Bolton-Smith C, Grubb DA, Lee SJ, Reid DM.

Am J Clin Nutr 2000; 71: 142−51.

3. “Effect of antioxidants combined to resistance training on BMD in elderly women: a pilot study”

Authors: A. Chuin, M. Labonté, D. Tessier, A. Khalil, F. Bobeuf, C. Y. Doyon, N. Rieth and I. J. Dionne

July 2009, Volume 20, Number 7, Pages 1253-1258