The adverse metabolic effects of branched-chain amino acids are mediated by isoleucine and valine.
Low-protein diets promote metabolic health in rodents and humans, and the benefits of low-protein diets are recapitulated by specifically reducing dietary levels of the three branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), leucine, isoleucine, and valine. Here, we demonstrate that each BCAA has distinct metabolic effects. A low isoleucine diet reprograms liver and adipose metabolism, increasing hepatic insulin sensitivity and ketogenesis and increasing energy expenditure, activating the FGF21-UCP1 axis. Reducing valine induces similar but more modest metabolic effects, whereas these effects are absent with low leucine. Reducing isoleucine or valine rapidly restores metabolic health to diet-induced obese mice. Finally, we demonstrate that variation in dietary isoleucine levels helps explain body mass index differences in humans. Our results reveal isoleucine as a key regulator of metabolic health and the adverse metabolic response to dietary BCAAs and suggest reducing dietary isoleucine as a new approach to treating and preventing obesity and diabetes.