The representation of carbon-nitrogen (N) interactions in global models of the natural or managed land surface remains an important knowledge gap. To improve global process-based models we require a better understanding of how N limitation affects photosynthesis and plant growth. Here we present the findings of a meta-analysis to quantitatively assess the impact of N limitation on source (photosynthate production) versus sink (photosynthate use) activity, based on 77 highly controlled experimental N availability studies on 11 crop species. Using meta-regressions, we find that it can be insufficient to represent N limitation in models merely as inhibiting carbon assimilation, because in crops complete N limitation more strongly influences leaf area expansion (-50%) than photosynthesis (-34%), while leaf starch is accumulating (+83%). Our analysis thus offers support for the hypothesis of sink limitation of photosynthesis and encourages the exploration of more sink-driven crop modelling approaches. We also show that leaf N concentration changes with N availability and that the allocation of N to Rubisco is reduced more strongly compared to other photosynthetic proteins at low N availability. Furthermore, our results suggest that different crop species show generally similar response patterns to N limitation, with the exception of leguminous crops, which respond differently. Our meta-analysis offers lessons for the improved depiction of N limitation in global terrestrial ecosystem models, as well as highlights knowledge gaps that need to be filled by future experimental studies on crop N limitation response.