The effects of varying dietary digestible protein (DP) and digestible energy (DE) content on performance, nutrient retention efficiency and the de novo lipogenesis of DP origin were examined in triplicate groups of gilthead sea bream (Sparus aurata), fed nine extruded experimental diets. In order to trace the metabolic fate of dietary protein, 1·8 % fishmeal was replaced with isotope-labelled whole protein (>98 % 13C). The experiment was divided into a growth period lasting 89 d, growing fish from approximately 140 to 350 g, followed by a 3 d period feeding isotope-enriched diets. Isotope ratio MS was applied to quantify the 13C enrichment of whole-body lipid from dietary DP. Between 18·6 and 22·4 % of the carbon derived from protein was recovered in the lipid fraction of the fish, and between 21·6 and 30·3 % of the total lipid deposited could be attributed to dietary protein. DP retention was significantly improved by reductions in dietary DP:DE ratio, while the opposite was true for apparent digestible lipid retention. Both overall DE retention and whole-body proximate composition of whole fish were largely unaffected by dietary treatments, while feed conversion ratios were significantly improved with increasing dietary energy density. The present study suggests that gilthead sea bream efficiently utilises dietary nutrients over a wide range of DP:DE ratios and energy densities. In addition, they appear to endeavour a certain body energy status rather than maximising growth, which in the present trial was apparent from inherently high de novo lipogenesis originating from DP.