Dietary restriction (DR) is a widely conserved intervention leading to lifespan extension. Despite considerable effort, the mechanisms underlying DR remain poorly understood. In particular, it remains unclear whether DR prolongs life through conserved mechanisms in different species. Here, we show that, in the most common experimental conditions, lifespan extension by DR is abolished by providing Drosophila with ad libitum water, without altering food intake, indicating that DR, as conventionally studied in flies, is fundamentally different from the phenomenon studied in mammals. We characterize an alternative dietary paradigm that elicits robust lifespan extension irrespective of water availability, and thus likely represents a more relevant model for mammalian DR. Our results support the view that protein:carbohydrate ratio is the main dietary determinant of fly lifespan. These findings have broad implications for the study of lifespan and nutrition.