High dietary protein intakes are known to increase urinary calcium excretion and, if maintained, will result in sustained hypercalciuria. To date, the majority of calcium balance studies in humans have not detected an effect of dietary protein on intestinal calcium absorption or serum parathyroid hormone. Therefore, it is commonly concluded that the source of the excess urinary calcium is increased bone resorption. Recent studies from our laboratory indicate that alterations in dietary protein can, in fact, profoundly affect intestinal calcium absorption. In short-term dietary trials in healthy adults, we fixed calcium intake at 20 mmol/d while dietary protein was increased from 0.7 to 2.1 g/kg. Increasing dietary protein induced hypercalciuria in 20 women [from 3.4 +/- 0.3 ( +/- SE) during the low-protein to 5.4 +/- 0.4 mmol/d during the high-protein diet]. The increased dietary protein was accompanied by a significant increase in intestinal calcium absorption from 18.4 +/- 1.3% to 26.3 +/- 1.5% (as determined by dual stable isotopic methodology). Dietary protein intakes at and below 0.8 g/kg were associated with a probable reduction in intestinal calcium absorption sufficient to cause secondary hyperparathyroidism. The long-term consequences of these low-protein diet-induced changes in mineral metabolism are not known, but the diet could be detrimental to skeletal health. Of concern are several recent epidemiologic studies that demonstrate reduced bone density and increased rates of bone loss in individuals habitually consuming low-protein diets. Studies are needed to determine whether low protein intakes directly affect rates of bone resorption, bone formation, or both.