Millions of osteoporosis patients should eat a Mediterranean diet to lower their odds of breaking their hip, research suggests.
Sticking to a diet rich in fruit, vegetables, nuts, unrefined cereals, olive oil and fish can stave off bone loss in sufferers as they grow older.
The findings add to the growing string of health benefits linked to the Mediterranean diet, such as fighting heart disease, Alzheimer's and cancer.
Bologna University scientists led the study, believed to be the first long-term analysis of the diet's impact of bone health in older adults.
Nearly 1,150 volunteers were followed over a year. Their bone density was measured both at the start and end of the EU-funded trial, which involved British, French, Dutch and Polish researchers.
Half of the participants, who were all aged between 65 and 79, were asked to follow a Mediterranean diet. The others were not.
For volunteers with normal bone density, the diet had no significant impact. But, it was found to offer benefits for osteoporosis patients.
All osteoporosis patients not following the Mediterranean diet had the usual age-related decrease in bone density.
But those sticking to the diet saw an equivalent increase in bone density in one part of the body – the femoral neck.
This is the area that connects the shaft of the thigh bone to its rounded head, which fits in the hip joint.
Professor Susan Fairweather-Tait, from the University of East Anglia, who led the UK part of the study, said: 'This is a particularly sensitive area for osteoporosis as loss of bone in the femoral neck is often the cause of hip fracture.
'Bone takes a long time to form, so the 12-month trial, although one of the longest to date, was still a relatively short time frame to show an impact.
'So the fact we were able to see a marked difference between the groups even in just this one area is significant.'
Volunteers following the Mediterranean diet increased their intake of fruits, veg, nuts, unrefined cereals, olive oil, and fish.
They also consumed less dairy and meat and had a moderate alcohol intake, for the study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Researchers also dished out vitamin D supplements to the participants, to even out the potential effects of the bone-boosting vitamin.
Bone density was measured across both groups at the lumbar spine – the lower back - and femoral neck.
Dr Amy Jennings, of UEA, said: 'With a longer trial, it's possible we could have picked up changes in the volunteers with normal bone density.'
The researchers are now calling for a longer trial in patients with osteoporosis, to confirm their findings across a larger group.
If the condition could be mitigated through diet, this would be a welcome addition to current drug treatments for osteoporosis, which can have severe side effects.
Figures estimate three million people in Britain and 44 million in the US suffer from osteoporosis.