The present study analysed the effect of protein restriction on serum insulin and leptin levels and their relationship with energy balance during lactation. Four groups of rats received isocaloric diets containing 170 g protein/kg or 60 g protein/kg from pregnancy until the 14th day of lactation: control non-lactating, control lactating (both fed a control diet), low-protein non-lactating and low-protein lactating. Energy intake, body composition, energy balance, serum insulin and leptin concentrations and the relationship between these hormones and several factors related to obesity were analysed. Low-protein-intake lactating rats exhibited hypoinsulinaemia, hyperleptinaemia, hypophagia and decreased energy expenditure compared with control lactating rats. The protein level in the carcasses was lower in the low-protein lactating group than in the control lactating group, resulting in a higher fat content in the first group compared with the latter. Body fat correlated inversely with serum insulin and positively with serum leptin level. There was a significant negative correlation between serum leptin and energy intake, and a positive relationship between energy intake and serum insulin level in lactating rats and in the combined data from both groups. Energy expenditure was correlated positively with serum insulin and negatively with serum leptin in lactating rats and when data from control non-lactating and lactating rats were pooled. Lactating rats submitted to protein restriction, compared with lactating control rats, showed that maternal reserves were preserved owing to less severe negative energy balance. This metabolic adaptation was obtained, at least in part, by the hypoinsulinaemia that resulted in increased insulin sensitivity favouring enhanced fat deposition, hyperleptinaemia and hypophagia.