In a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, we studied the effects of six months of growth hormone replacement in 24 adults with growth hormone deficiency. Most of the patients had acquired growth hormone deficiency during adulthood as a consequence of treatment for pituitary tumors, and all were receiving appropriate thyroid, adrenal, and gonadal hormone replacement. The daily dose of recombinant human growth hormone (rhGH) was 0.07 U per kilogram of body weight, given subcutaneously at bedtime. The mean (+/- SE) plasma concentration of insulin-like growth factor I increased from 0.41 +/- 0.05 to 1.53 +/- 0.16 U per liter during rhGH treatment. Treatment with rhGH had no effect on body weight. The mean lean body mass, however, increased by 5.5 +/- 1.1 kg (P less than 0.0001), and the fat mass decreased by 5.7 +/- 0.9 kg (P less than 0.0001) in the group treated with growth hormone; neither changed significantly in the placebo group. The basal metabolic rate, measured at base line and after one and six months of rhGH administration, increased significantly; the respective values were 32.4 +/- 1.4, 37.2 +/- 2.2, and 34.4 +/- 1.6 kcal per kilogram of lean body mass per day (P less than 0.001 for both comparisons). Fasting plasma cholesterol levels were lower (P less than 0.05) in the rhGH-treated group than in the placebo group, whereas plasma triglyceride values were similar in the two groups throughout the study. We conclude that growth hormone has a role in the regulation of body composition in adults, probably through its anabolic and lipolytic actions.