While your bones don’t shrink when you lose weight, they can lose density, which is a significant health concern. Weight loss affects bone density, causing bones to be thinner and lighter, increasing your risk for bone fractures.
The global prevalence of obesity has nearly doubled since the 1980s. Obesity increases the risk of developing chronic medical conditions such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Restricting calories can support weight loss efforts, but it is important to protect your bones while losing those excess pounds. Combining a healthy diet with exercise is the best way to protect your bones.
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Bones are made up of living cells, collagen fibers, and salt crystals. Bone cells are constantly building bone (osteoblasts), breaking it down (osteoclast), and maintaining it (osteocyte). Salt crystals form when calcium phosphate and calcium carbonate combine to form hydroxyapatite. Hydroxyapatite incorporates other minerals and crystallizes on collagen fibers. Hydroxyapatite crystals give bone its strength, and collagen fibers provide flexibility.
Body weight is a strong determinant of bone density. A study of women who met the criteria for overweight or obesity and lost 5% or more of their body weight over six years found a 2.5 times higher risk of hip fractures than women who maintained or gained weight. Weight loss between middle and older age increases the risk of hip fractures.
In another study, men and women were assigned to one of four low-calorie diets. The diets had varying proportions of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Total calories consumed were the same in all four groups. Postmenopausal women had a small decrease in spine and hip bone density. Premenopausal women had a small decrease in hip bone density, while men had a slight increase in bone density. Women who lost more abdominal fat had greater decreases in bone density.
Weight alone is not the reason bones have increased density. When researchers compared the skeletons of people with obesity to people at a healthy weight, their bones were not stronger relative to the weight they carried. Obesity is also associated with an increased risk of arm and leg bone fractures.
Bone responds to the stresses put upon it. When you exercise, you stress your bones, and they respond by increasing bone density. If you consume a restricted diet, your bones may not get the nutrients they need, which can further compromise bone density.
Many variables affect bone density. However, some populations seem to be at greater risk:
Any part of the skeleton can be affected by decreased bone density (osteoporosis). However, the bones most likely to sustain fractures as a result of decreased bone density include:
The endocrine system produces hormones that regulate mineral levels in the body. Changes in some hormone levels are associated with an increased risk of osteoporosis.
There are no signs or symptoms of osteoporosis in the early stages of bone loss. It is only after you sustain a fracture or have a bone density screening test that it is identified.
The best ways to prevent bone loss, whether secondary to weight loss or another cause, are to:
Talk to your doctor if you are concerned that you may have decreased bone density after losing weight. There are no signs or symptoms associated with decreased bone density until you have a fracture. Eat a healthy diet and engage in weight-bearing exercises, such as walking, running, and jogging.
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While we strive to always provide accurate, current, and safe advice in all of our articles and guides, it’s important to stress that they are no substitute for medical advice from a doctor or healthcare provider. You should always consult a practicing professional who can diagnose your specific case. The content we’ve included in this guide is merely meant to be informational and does not constitute medical advice.