Relatively low rates of energy expenditure and fat oxidation predict body weight gain. Weight gain, in turn, is associated with increases in energy expenditure and fat oxidation that may oppose further weight change. In response to experimental weight gain induced by overfeeding, increases in energy expenditure and fat oxidation are overcompensatory, i.e. greater than predicted for the change in body composition. To determine whether such metabolic adaptation occurs in response to spontaneous long term weight change, we conducted a longitudinal study in which 24-h energy expenditure (24-EE) and 24-h respiratory quotient (24-RQ; i.e. fat to carbohydrate oxidation) were repeatedly measured in 102 Pima Indians at baseline and after a mean follow-up of 3.6 +/- 2.7 yr, during which changes in body weight varied widely (-21 to +28 kg). We found that changes in 24-EE and 24-RQ in response to weight change were related to the amount of weight change, even after adjustment for body composition (partial r = 0.23 and -0.30, respectively; both P < 0.05). For a 15-kg weight gain, the increases in 24-EE (+244 Cal/day) and 24-h fat oxidation (+152 Cal/day) were 33 and 53 Cal/day greater than predicted from the cross-sectional relationship between both measures and body weight. Changes in 24-EE and 24-RQ varied substantially among individuals. Thus, on the average, spontaneous long term weight changes are accompanied by small metabolic adaptations in both energy expenditure and fat oxidation. The metabolic responses to weight changes are highly variable among individuals, however.