Potential alterations in islet size and islet size distribution resulting from protein malnutrition were studied in lean (Fa/Fa) and obese (fa/fa) Zucker rats. The purpose was to investigate whether the distribution of enlarged islets in obese rats was altered by low-protein feeding. Four-week-old, male, lean and obese Zucker rats were fed either a diet containing 20% (w/w) protein (control diet) or a diet containing 5% (w/w) protein (low-protein diet) for 3 weeks. Pancreata were dissected at autopsy and immunostained for insulin. Islet size and distribution were determined by morphometric analysis. Bodyweight gain, food intake, and serum insulin and glucose were also measured. After 3 weeks on the diets, serum insulin was significantly lower in both lean (-75%) and obese (-54%) rats fed low protein compared with that in controls. However, obese rats were still hyperinsulinemic compared with lean rats. Protein malnutrition resulted in a shift in distribution of islets to smaller size both in lean and in obese rats, with an increase in the population of small islets (< or = 100 microns2) and a decrease in the population of large islets (> 20,000 microns2). In lean and obese rats fed low protein, beta-cell weight was significantly lower, beta cell volume fraction tended to decrease, and islet number per section area was significantly elevated when compared with controls. Taken together, these results show that protein deficiency alters the endocrine pancrease in both lean and obese Zucker rats. Although the decrease in islet size and the shift in distribution to smaller islets most likely contribute to the decrease in serum insulin concentration, these changes appear insufficient to normalize hyperinsulinemia in the obese Zucker rat.