The Link Between Obesity and Teen Bone Loss

Posted 01/18/2017 | By HealthCorps

A new study suggests that when a teen develops obesity, they may end up with irreparable bone loss.

Being diagnosed with obesity in childhood or adulthood is associated with a number of health risks.  Obesity raises the risk of developing prediabetes, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, hypertension, arthritis, and cancers.  This new study aimed to see how excess weight affects actual bone structure.  The premise had been that having obesity was actually protective of bones, possibly due to higher levels of certain circulating hormones.

The researchers noted that findings suggest that to the contrary, there appeared to be a higher incidence of bone fractures in obese youth.  The lead author, Miriam Bredella, M.D., radiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital set out with colleagues to see the relationship between having obesity as a teen and your bone structure.  Typically, adolescence is a time of peak bone growth and bone mass.  It’s already known that anorexia and extreme dieting can impair bone density, especially in female teens.

Twenty three teens with a mean age of 17 were recruited for the study.  Each was considered obese by BMI measurement.  They were all subjected to special CT and dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry (DXA).  These technologies assess bone mineral density and bone microarchitecture (arms and legs in this case) and body composition including lean mass and visceral fat levels.  Visceral fat is the very deep fat that can wrap around organs and not be obvious.  You can appear to have a normal sized frame and still have visceral fat.

Visceral fat has a negative influence on bone health in several ways.  These types of fat cells secrete substances that instigate inflammation and this process can actually stimulate the production of more osteoclasts, which are cells that resorb and breakdown bone.  Vitamin D is soluble in adipose tissues, so it gets trapped and is not able to support bone.  Growth hormone is also lower in the presence of obesity.  Higher visceral fat levels also correlate with more porous bones.  High visceral fat coupled with low muscle mass puts teens at risk of developing weakened bone and lower levels of growth.

So best practices to ensure that a teen has strong bones and maximal bone density and growth include:

  • Addressing excess weight or obesity and finding healthy ways to achieve a normal weight and BMI
  • Providing meals that are high in calcium and calcium fortified foods, vitamin D, magnesium and vitamin K which all support strong bones.
  • Engaging in aerobic exercise to help with energy and weight balance
  • Engaging in resistance training meaning weight-bearing exercise and fitness activities that involve lifting weights on a regular basis.
  • Doing plyometrics (jumping-type exercises) and other weight-bearing exercise like running to increase or maintain bone density.


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