Primates commonly consume leaves that are high in protein but low in digestion-inhibiting fibre. Due to the fact that mature leaves do not meet these criteria, they are typically avoided and many leaf-eating primates select for leaves high in protein and low in fibre leading to the theory that food selection is based on protein maximization. However, feeding records for a population of black howler monkey (Alouatta pigra) in Monkey River, Belize, collected over a 5-y period, together with synchronous phenological data, indicate that this population does not meet the expectation and actually prefer mature leaves. This study aims to describe the nutritional composition of the food supply and investigate the possibility that, rather than to maximize protein ingestion, mature leaves are eaten to balance nutrient intake. Macronutrient analyses (moisture, lipids, protein, NDF, ADF and simple sugars) were conducted on a sample of 96 plant samples from 18 food species of this population of black howler. Results reported here show that mature leaves eaten by howlers in this forest contain sufficient protein to meet minimum metabolic requirements (range: 11.6–24%; mean: 16.4% ± 3.8%) and have significantly higher concentrations of simple sugars than young leaves (means of 7.2% ± 2.7% vs. 4.4% ± 2.3% respectively). Thus, it appears that mature leaf ingestion is likely serving to balance energy and protein intake. This result may be due to the disruptive effects of a hurricane in 2001 that resulted in a loss of 80% of the howler population, changed forest composition and may have affected plant chemistry. Despite this, the data reported here suggest that the accepted view that mature leaves are simply fallback foods for primates, eaten only in times of preferred food scarcity, may have to be revised.