A randomized comparison trial of two very low calorie weight reduction diets was carried out for 5 or 8 wk in 17 healthy obese women. One diet provided 1.5 g protein/kg ideal body weight; the other provided 0.8 g protein/kg ideal body weight plus 0.7 g carbohydrate/kg ideal body weight. The diets were isocaloric (500 kcal). Amino acid metabolism was studied by means of tracer infusions of L-[1-13C]leucine and L-[15N]alanine. After 3 wk of adaptation to the diets, nitrogen balance was zero for the 1.5 g protein diet but -2 g N/d for the 0.8 g protein diet. Postabsorptive plasma leucine and alanine flux decreased from base line by an equal extent with both diets by approximately 20 and 40%, respectively. It was concluded that protein intakes at the level of the recommended dietary allowance (0.8 g/kg) are not compatible with nitrogen equilibrium when the energy intake is severely restricted, and that nitrogen balance is improved by increasing the protein intake above that level. Basal rates of whole body nitrogen turnover are relatively well maintained, compared with total fasting, at both protein intakes. However, turnover in the peripheral compartment, as evidenced by alanine flux, may be markedly diminished with either diet.