1. Urea kinetics were measured by using prime/intermittent oral doses of [15N15N]urea in five healthy men taking formula diets adequate in energy and containing either 70 or 35 g of protein/day. In some studies the low-protein diet was supplemented with non-starch polysaccharides in the form of ispaghula husk or ripe bananas.
2. On the 70 g of protein/day diet urea production was 132% of intake. Only 54% of the urea produced was excreted in the urine with 46% being salvaged in the colon; 90% of the salvaged nitrogen was retained in the metabolic nitrogen pool.
3. On the 35 g of protein/day diet the small decrease in urea production rate compared with that on the 70 g of protein/day diet was not significant, but only 36% of the urea produced was excreted in urine, with the majority, 64%, being salvaged.
4. The extent of urea-nitrogen salvaging on the 35 g of protein/day diet was similar in magnitude to the decrease in nitrogen intake, with the effect that the sum of intake and salvaged nitrogen did not differ between the 35 and the 70 g of protein/day diets. This implies that quantitative control is exerted over the rate at which urea nitrogen is salvaged.
5. The addition of non-starch polysaccharides to the 35 g of protein/day diet had a demonstrable effect upon faecal weight and composition, but did not exert any significant influence upon urea kinetics.
6. It is concluded that large changes in the rate of urea production are not necessary for adaptation to a low-protein diet, rather the salvaging of urea nitrogen in the lower bowel appears to be an important mechanism through which the body adapts to a low-protein diet. The salvaging of urea nitrogen by the colon makes an important contribution to the conservation of body nitrogen.