The shortcomings of the metabolic implications of the current protein requirements model are reviewed, and an alternative model, validated with [1-13C]leucine balance results in human adults, is presented and evaluated in the context of defining protein requirements. The model identifies metabolic demands for amino acids as comprising a small fixed component and a variable adaptive component that is relatively insensitive to acute food or protein intake, but which changes slowly with a sustained change in intake, enabling N equilibrium to be achieved. The model accounts for the apparent low efficiency of utilisation of animal proteins in N balance studies and enables more realistic efficiency values to be measured within an experimental framework that takes account of the adaptive metabolic demand. However, the complex relationship between the adaptive metabolic demand and habitual level and quality of protein intake prevents prediction of protein quality by amino acid scoring, which can markedly underestimate actual values. In contrast to the current model, for fully adapted individuals risk of deficiency (i.e. negative N balance after complete adaptation) will only start to increase when intakes fall below the range of the true minimum requirements, i.e. a value that is currently unknown, but likely to be between 0·40 and 0·50 g/kg per d at the lower end of the reported distribution of requirements. At intakes greater than this with additional metabolic demands varying directly with intake, deficiency is only likely as a short-term response to a change to a lower intake within the adaptive range. Thus, for adults satisfying energy needs on most mixed human diets, intakes will be within the adaptive range, and N equilibrium ceases to be a useful indicator of nutritional adequacy of protein. In the context of prescriptive dietary guidelines it may be expedient to retain current values until the benefits (and any risks) of protein intakes within the adaptive range can be quantified. However, from a diagnostic perspective, indicators other than N balance need to be identified, since maintenance of N balance can no longer be used as a surrogate of adequate protein-related health.