The keto analog of leucine, alpha-ketoisocaproate (KIC), is formed intracellularly from leucine and is released, in part, into the systemic circulation. Therefore. KIC can be used to estimate intracellular leucine tracer enrichment in man during labeled-leucine tracer experiments without requiring tissue biopsy samples. This approach was studied in young, healthy, male adults maintained on different dietary protein intakes from generous (1.5 g kg-1d-1) to deficient (0.0 g kg-1d-1) for 5-7 day periods. At the end of each dietary period, the volunteers were given a primed, continuous infusion of L-[1-13C]leucine either after an overnight fast (postabsorptive state) or while being fed hourly aliquots of the same diet. The plasma concentrations of all 3 branched-chain amino and keto acid pairs were measured from early morning blood samples taken from 4 subjects at 4 different levels of protein intake. Leucine concentration showed a weak correlation, and valine concentration showed a strong correlation with protein intake; isoleucine and the 3 keto acids did not. However, each branched-chain amino acid concentration was strongly correlated with its corresponding keto acid concentration. In plasma samples obtained during the L-[1-13C]leucine infusions, the ratio of [1-13C]KIC to [1-13C]leucine enrichment ratio remained relatively constant (77 +/- 1% over the wide range of dietary protein intakes and for both the fed and postabsorptive states. For the tissues from which the plasma KIC originates, the rate of plasma leucine into cells will account for approximately 77% of the intracellular leucine flux with the remaining 23% coming primarily from leucine release via protein breakdown. The constant nature of the plasma KIC to leucine 13C enrichment ratio implies that relative changes in leucine kinetics will appear the same under many dietary circumstances regardless of whether plasma leucine or KIC enrichments are used for the calculations.