Older women who habitually consume red meat have an increased risk of frailty, but replacing one serving a day with another protein source substantially reduces risk, a new study has found.

Investigators analyzed data from more than 85,000 women aged 60 or more years participating in the Nurses’ Health Study. Participants filled out regular food frequency questionnaires, between 1980 and 2010, and frailty occurrence was assessed every four years from 1992 to 2014.

Participants who consumed the most red meat were more likely to receive a diagnosis of frailty after adjusting for lifestyle, medication and other dietary factors, reported first author Ellen A. Struijk, Ph.D., of the Autonomous University of Madrid, Spain. 

But a relatively small change made a big difference in the odds of developing this debilitating condition, she and her colleagues reported. Replacing just one daily serving of unprocessed red meat with another protein source was linked to a significantly lower risk of frailty: 21% for fish and 14% for nuts. Replacing one serving of processed meat, meanwhile, led to a reduced risk of 32% for fish, 26% for nuts, 13% for legumes, and 16% for dairy.

Investigators defined frailty as having at least three of five criteria from the FRAIL scale: fatigue, low strength, reduced aerobic capacity, having five or more chronic illnesses, and weight loss at or greater than 5%. 

The research was presented at the Nutrition Live Online conference in early June.