The reduction in resting metabolic rate (RMR) during weight loss exceeds that accounted for by changes in body composition by 15%, suggesting that factors other than fat-free mass (FFM) explain the metabolic adaptation during food restriction in obesity. Our study aimed to establish if changes in the sympathoadrenal system activity, as inferred from an integrated measure such as 24 h urinary excretion of catecholamines, may play a role in the RMR adaptation observed during dietary restriction in obese patients. Ninety-three obese female subjects consumed a low-energy diet (LED) (2930 kJ/d (700 kcal/d)) for a 3-week period. At the beginning and at the end of the study, 24 h urinary excretion of catecholamines, FFM and RMR were measured. The LED induced a significant reduction in body weight (-3.3 (SEM 0.4) kg; P < 0.01), FFM (-1.9 (SEM 0.7) kg; P < 0.01) and in the fat mass (-1.2 (SEM 0.5) kg; P < 0.01). Noradrenalin excretion (24 h) decreased during the LED from 264 (SEM 26) during a weight-maintenance period to 171 (SEM 19) nmol/24 h after consumption of the LED for 3 weeks (P < 0.001); mean 24 h adrenalin excretion did not change during the LED (22 (SEM 3) during the weight-maintenance period v. 21 (SEM 3) nmol/24 h after consumption of the LED for 3 weeks; NS). The LED induced a significant decrease in RMR (7300 (SEM 218) v. 6831 (SEM 138) kJ/24 h; P < 0.001). The only independent variable that significantly explained variations in RMR both before and after consumption of the LED for 3 weeks, was FFM (r2 0.79 and r2 0.80 respectively). Urinary noradrenalin excretion explained a further 4% of the variability in RMR, but only before the diet, so that a role of sympathoadrenal system on RMR seems to be present in obese patients in basal conditions but not at the end of the LED.