There is paramount evidence to suggest the importance of cell volume changes for the regulation of cell function, including protein metabolism. Among many other effects, cell swelling inhibits proteolysis and stimulates protein synthesis. However, most of the data pertinent to this theory relate to in vitro experiments. This paper reviews the evidence about the relevance of cell swelling and changes in water compartments to regulation of metabolism at the whole body level in animals and humans. Protein metabolism is most likely regulated by cellular hydration in health and disease. Cellular hydration appears to bear no effect on energy metabolism. The relationship between cellular hydration and lipolysis deserves to be verified. There appears to be a possible weak effect on glucose metabolism. Further studies are therefore necessary to challenge the cell swelling theory. If confirmed, strategies to modify cellular hydration could be used to improve metabolic orientations especially in the critically ill.