Marginal zinc or vitamin A intake is more common than previously thought in industrialized and developing countries, with pregnant and lactating women believed to be particularly at risk. However, the lack of sensitive indicators of zinc and vitamin A status precludes accurate assessment of marginal nutriture. Concurrent deficiencies in zinc and vitamin A intake often coexist, and the interaction between zinc deficiency and vitamin A metabolism may confound results from epidemiologic or intervention studies. To investigate effects of a maternal diet chronically restricted in zinc or vitamin A intake on indices of vitamin A metabolism, we fed rats a control diet (C) or a diet marginal in zinc (ZD), marginal in vitamin A (AD), marginal in both (DD) or pair-fed to DD (PF), preconception through lactation. Plasma retinol (ROH) was greater and retinol binding protein (RBP) was lower in rats fed ZD, AD and DD compared with those fed C. Hepatic cellular retinol binding protein (CRBP) expression was greater than controls in rats fed ZD and AD and lower in those fed DD, whereas RBP expression was greater in the DD- and PF-fed groups compared with rats C. Mammary gland CRBP and RBP expression were not affected by the diets. Milk ROH was lower in rats fed AD, and milk RBP was lower in those fed ZD and DD compared with rats fed C. In summary, chronic, marginal intake of zinc or vitamin A resulted in alterations in tissue retinol metabolism and milk retinol levels without decreasing plasma zinc, retinol or ROH:RBP during lactation. These observations are of concern because these parameters, which are commonly used to assess zinc and vitamin A status, may lead to misassessment of marginal zinc or vitamin A nutriture in some human populations.