Dietary protein increases urinary calcium losses and has been associated with higher rates of hip fracture in cross-cultural studies. However, the relation between protein and risk of osteoporotic bone fractures among individuals has not been examined in detail. In this prospective study, usual dietary intake was measured in 1980 in a cohort of 85,900 women, aged 35-59 years, who were participants in the Nurses' Health Study. A mailed food frequency questionnaire was used and incident hip (n = 234) and distal forearm (n = 1,628) fractures were identified by self-report during the following 12 years. Information on other factors related to osteoporosis, including obesity, use of postmenopausal estrogen, smoking, and physical activity, was collected on biennial questionnaires. Dietary measures were updated in 1984 and 1986. Protein was associated with an increased risk of forearm fracture (relative risk (RR) = 1.22, 95% confidence interval (Cl) 1.04-1.43, p for trend = 0.01) for women who consumed more than 95 g per day compared with those who consumed less than 68 g per day. A similar increase in risk was observed for animal protein, but no association was found for consumption of vegetable protein. Women who consumed five or more servings of red meat per week also had a significantly increased risk of forearm fracture (RR = 1.23, 95% Cl 1.01-1.50) compared with women who ate red meat less than once per week. Recall of teenage diet did not reveal any increased risk of forearm fracture for women with higher consumption of animal protein or red meat during this earlier period of life. No association was observed between adult protein intake and the incidence of hip fractures, though power to assess this association was low.