The evolutionary and biological significance of adaptive, homeostatic forms of heat production (thermogenesis) is reviewed. After summarizing the role and selective value of thermogenesis in body temperature regulation (shivering and non-shivering thermogenesis) and the febrile response to infection (fever), the review concentrates on diet-induced thermogenesis (DIT). Animal studies indicate that DIT evolved mainly to deal with nutrient-deficient or unbalanced diets, and re-analysis of twelve overfeeding studies carried out between 1967 and 1999 suggests the same may be so for humans, particularly when dietary protein concentration is varied. This implies that the role of DIT in the regulation of energy balance is secondary to its function in regulating the metabolic supply of essential nutrients. However, individual differences in DIT are much more marked when high- or low-protein diets are overfed, and this could provide a very sensitive method for discriminating between those who are, in metabolic terms, resistant and those who are susceptible to obesity.