The Journal of Nutrition 2003 (Jan); 133 (1): 261S–267S
Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition,
Division of Nutritional Sciences,
University of Illinois
Urbana-Champaign, 61801, USA.
Debate about the optimum balance of macronutrients for adult weight maintenance or weight loss continues to expand. Often this debate centers on the relative merits or risks of carbohydrates vs. fats; however, there is increasing interest in the optimal level of dietary protein for weight loss. Diets with a reduced ratio of carbohydrates/protein are reported to be beneficial for weight loss, although diet studies appear to lack a fundamental hypothesis to support higher protein intakes. Presently, needs for dietary proteins are established by the recommended daily allowance (RDA) as the minimum level of protein necessary to maintain nitrogen balance. The RDA define the primary use of amino acids as substrates for synthesis of body proteins. There is emerging evidence that additional metabolic roles for some amino acids require plasma and intracellular levels above minimum needs for protein synthesis. The branched-chain amino acid leucine is an example of an amino acid with numerous metabolic roles that function in proportion with cellular concentration. This review provides an overview of the current understanding of metabolic roles of leucine and proposes a metabolic framework to evaluate the merits of a higher protein diet for weight loss.