We examined the adaptive responses of body protein metabolism in the fed state to dietary protein restriction in lactating women to determine whether rates of body protein degradation and synthesis were lower than those of nonlactating women. Thirteen healthy women (five lactating, four nonlactating postpartum, four nulliparous) aged 28-32 y were given protein intakes of 1.5, 0.4, and 1.0 g.kg-1.d-1 over three consecutive 3-d periods, respectively. At the end of each period, while in the fed state, subjects received orally a single bolus dose of [1-13C]leucine. A 24-h urine collection was obtained simultaneously. Whole-body protein metabolism was characterized by using the end product model based on nitrogen excretion and leucine catabolism. Nitrogen flux and rates of protein degradation and synthesis in the fed state were significantly lower at a dietary protein intake of 1.0 g.kg-1.d-1 in lactating women than in their nonlactating postpartum counterparts. Net protein retention in the fed state was significantly higher at a dietary protein intake of 1.0 g.kg-1.d-1 in lactating than in nonlactatating postpartum and nulliparous women because of the relatively greater reduction in protein degradation than in protein synthesis. These studies suggest that lactating women rapidly adapt to dietary protein restriction by down-regulating protein metabolism, and that 13C-labeled amino acid tracers in combination with urinary nitrogen excretion serve as useful metabolic markers for the adequacy of the dietary protein content of lactating women.