Growth hormone (GH) can induce an accelerated lipolysis. Impaired secretion of GH in obesity results in the consequent loss of the lipolytic effect of GH. Dietary restriction as a basic treatment for obesity is complicated by poor compliance, protein catabolism, and slow rates or weight loss. GH has an anabolic effect by increasing insulin-like growth factor (IGF)-I. We investigated the effects of GH treatment and dietary restriction on lipolytic and anabolic actions, as well as the consequent changes in insulin and GH secretion in obesity. 24 obese subjects (22 women and 2 men; 22-46 years old) were fed a diet of 25 kcal/kg ideal body weight (IBW) with 1.2 g protein/kg IBW daily and were treated with recombinant human GH (n = 12, 0.18 U/kg IBW/week) or placebo (n = 12, vehicle injection) in a 12-week randomized, double-blind and placebo-controlled trial. GH treatment caused a 1.6-fold increase in the fraction of body weight lost as fat and a greater loss of visceral fat area than placebo treatment (35.3 vs. 28.5%, p < 0.05). In the placebo group, there was a loss in lean body mass (-2.62 +/- 1.51 kg) and a negative nitrogen balance (-4.52 +/- 3.51 g/day). By contrast, the GH group increased in lean body mass (1.13 +/- 1.04 kg) and had a positive nitrogen balance (1.81 +/- 2.06 g/day). GH injections caused a 1.6-fold increase in IGF-I, despite caloric restriction. GH response to L-dopa stimulation was blunted in all subjects and it was increased after treatment in both groups. GH treatment did not induce a further increase in insulin levels during an oral glucose tolerance test (OGTT) but significantly decreased free fatty acid (FFA) levels during OGTT. The decrease in FFA area under the curve during OGTT was positively correlated with visceral fat loss. This study demonstrates that in obese subjects given a hypocaloric diet, GH accelerates body fat loss, exerts anabolic effects and improves GH secretion. These findings suggest a possible therapeutic role of low-dose GH with caloric restriction for obesity.