Between 1963 and 1991, the most dramatic increases in the prevalence of overweight in the United States have been reported in African-American girls. Lower basal energy expenditure and lack of physical activity are believed to be risk factors for excessive weight gain. We hypothesized that energy expenditure at rest and during physical activity are lower in pubertal African-American girls than in Caucasian girls. Basal metabolic rate and sleeping energy expenditure of 40 Caucasian and 41 African-American pubertal girls (matched for age, physical characteristics, body fat, and energy intake) were measured by whole-room calorimetry, energy expended for physical activity by the doubly labeled water method, sexual maturity by physical examination, body composition by dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry, physical fitness by treadmill testing, and energy intake by 3-day food record. After adjusting for soft lean tissue mass, the basal energy expenditure (1333 +/- 132 vs. 1412 +/- 132 kcal/day, P = 0.01) and energy expended for physical activity (809 +/- 637 vs. 1271 +/- 162 kcal/day, P < 0.01) were significantly lower in the African-American girls than in the Caucasian girls. The differences remained the same after controlling for differences in sexual maturity and/or physical fitness. The lower energy expenditure of the pubertal African-American girls suggests that they are at a higher risk of becoming overweight than their Caucasian counterparts.