It is known that the level of dietary protein modulates the enzymatic activity of the digestive tract of fish; however, its effect at the molecular level on these enzymes and the hormones regulating appetite has not been well characterised. The objective of this study was to evaluate the effect of CP on the activity of proteases and the expression of genes related to the ingestion and protein digestion of juveniles of red tilapia (Oreochromis sp.), as well as the effects on performance, protein retention and body composition of tilapia. A total of 240 juveniles (29.32 ± 5.19 g) were used, distributed across 20 tanks of 100 l in a closed recirculation system. The fish were fed to apparent satiety for 42 days using four isoenergetic diets with different CP levels (24%, 30%, 36% and 42%). The results indicate that fish fed the 30% CP diet exhibited a higher growth performance compared to those on the 42% CP diet (P < 0.05). Feed intake in fish fed 24% and 30% CP diets was significantly higher than that in fish fed 36% and 42% CP diets (P < 0.05). A significant elevation of protein retention was observed in fish fed with 24% and 30% CP diets. Fish fed with 24% CP exhibited a significant increase in lipid deposition in the whole body. The diet with 42% CP was associated with the highest expression of pepsinogen and the lowest activity of acid protease (P < 0.05). The expression of hepatopancreatic trypsinogen increased as CP levels in the diet increased (P < 0.05) up to 36%, whereas trypsin activity showed a significant reduction with 42% CP (P < 0.05). The diet with 42% CP was associated with the lowest intestinal chymotrypsinogen expression and the lowest chymotrypsin activity (P < 0.05). α-amylase expression decreased with increasing (P < 0.05) CP levels up to 36%. No significant differences were observed in the expression of procarboxypeptidase, lipase or leptin among all the groups (P > 0.05). In addition, the diet with 42% CP resulted in a decrease (P < 0.05) in the expression of ghrelin and insulin and an increase (P < 0.05) in the expression of cholecystokinin and peptide yy. It is concluded that variation in dietary protein promoted changes in the metabolism of the red tilapia, which was reflected in proteolytic activity and expression of digestion and appetite-regulating genes.