a1 MRC Human Nutrition Research, The Elsie Widdowson Laboratory, Fulbourn Road, Cambridge, CBl 9NL, UK
The effects of dietary protein on bone health are paradoxical and need to be considered in context of the age, health status and usual diet of the population. Over the last 80 years numerous studies have demonstrated that a high protein intake increases urinary Ca excretion and that on average 1 mg Ca is lost in urine for every 1 g rise in dietary protein. This relationship is primarily attributable to metabolism of S amino acids present in animal and some vegetable proteins, resulting in a greater acid load and buffering response by the skeleton. However, many of these early studies that demonstrated the calciuric effects of protein were limited by low subject numbers, methodological errors and the use of high doses of purified forms of protein. Furthermore, the cross-cultural and population studies that showed a positive association between animal-protein intake and hip fracture risk did not consider other lifestyle or dietary factors that may protect or increase the risk of fracture. The effects of protein on bone appear to be biphasic and may also depend on intake of Ca- and alkali-rich foods, such as fruit and vegetables. At low protein intakes insulin-like growth factor production is reduced, which in turn has a negative effect on Ca and phosphate metabolism, bone formation and muscle cell synthesis. Although growth and skeletal development is impaired at very low protein intakes, it is not known whether variations in protein quality affect the achievement of optimal peak bone mass in adolescents and young adults. Prospective studies in the elderly in the USA have shown that the greatest bone losses occur in elderly men and women with an average protein intake of 16–50 g/d. Although a low protein intake may be indicative of a generally poorer diet and state of health, there is a need to evaluate whether there is a lower threshold for protein intake in the elderly in Europe that may result in increased bone loss and risk of osteoporotic fracture.