Revised estimates of protein and amino acid requirements are under discussion by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)/World Health Organizaion (WHO), and have been proposed in a recent report on Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs) from the USA. The nature and magnitude of these requirements are not entirely resolved, and no consideration has been given to the potential influence of metabolic adaptation on dietary requirements. We have examined the implications of these new values, and of the conceptual metabolic framework in which they are used, for defining the nutritional adequacy of protein intakes in developed and developing countries. We have expressed proposed values for protein requirements in relation to energy requirements, predicted for physical activity levels of 1.5, 1.75 and 2.0 times basal metabolic rate, in order to generate reference ratios for protein energy/total energy (reference P/E ratio) as a function of age, body weight, gender and physical activity level. Proposed values for amino acid requirements have been used to adjust the available digestible P/E ratio of foods and diets for protein quality. Focusing on the diets of UK omnivores and vegetarians and on diets in India, the risk of protein deficiency is evaluated from a comparison of P/E ratios of metabolic requirements with protein-quality-adjusted P/E ratios of intakes. A qualitative and conservative estimate of risk of deficiency is made by comparing the adjusted P/E ratio of the intake with a reference P/E ratio calculated for age, body weight, gender and physical activity according to FAO/WHO/United Nations University. A semi-quantitative estimate of risk of deficiency has also been made by the cut point approach, calculated as the proportion of the intake distribution below the mean P/E ratio of the requirement. Values for the quality-adjusted P/E ratio of the diet range from 0.126 for the UK omnivore diet to 0.054 for a rice-based diet of adults in West Bengal, which is lysine-limited, falling to 0.050 for 1-year-old children. The reference P/E ratio for men and women increases with age, is higher for females than males, is higher for small compared with large adults at any age and decreases with physical activity. Thus if a particular diet is potentially limiting in protein, protein deficiency is most likely in large, elderly sedentary women followed by the adolescent female and least likely in moderately active young children, the opposite of what has usually been assumed. Within the currently accepted framework, the diets do not meet the protein needs of the entire population of the UK, have a significant risk of deficiency throughout India for all except extremely active small adults, and are grossly inadequate for all population groups, apart from physically active young children in West Bengal, regardless of body weight or level of food intake. The lysine limitation of the cereal-based Indian diets is dependent on the choice of lysine requirement values from the published range. We consider that the value selected is too high, because of uncertainties and inconsistencies in the approaches used. A more appropriate choice from the lower end of the range would remove the lysine limitation of cereal-based diets, and reduce some of the perceived risk of deficiency. However, diets remain limited by the amount of digestible protein for many population groups, especially in West Bengal. In the context of risk management, one option would be to accept the current values and the conceptual metabolic framework within which they have been derived. This would have major implications for the supplies of high-quality protein to the developing countries. An alternative option would be to re-evaluate the currently proposed values for the requirements for protein and amino acids. We conclude that the choice of values for the adult lysine requirement should be re-evaluated and that serious consideration should be given to the extent to which adaptive mechanisms might enable the metabolic requirement for protein to be met from current intakes. This will entail a better understanding of the relationships between dietary protein and health.
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