Patients with severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) commonly experience weight loss. An increased energy expenditure for respiration might explain the increased caloric requirements and weight loss seen in this patient population. We measured the oxygen cost of augmenting ventilation (O2 cost) using an open circuit technique with dead-space stimulation of ventilation in nine normally nourished (greater than 90% ideal body weight) and in 10 malnourished (less than 90% ideal body weight) patients with COPD as well as in seven normal control subjects. O2 cost was significantly elevated in the malnourished patients with COPD (4.28 +/- 0.98 ml O2/L ventilation) relative to the normally nourished group (2.61 +/- 1.07) and the normal control subjects (1.23 +/- 0.51) (p less than 0.001). The measured resting energy expenditure (REEmeas) was also increased compared with predicted values (REEpred) in the malnourished population (REEmeas/REEpred = 94.57 +/- 6.21% for control subjects, 105.5 +/- 19.66% for normally nourished patients with COPD, and 119.4 +/- 11.69% for malnourished patients with COPD) (p less than 0.005). The malnourished population was characterized by a greater degree of hyperinflation (RV/TLC = 0.55 +/- 0.09 for normally nourished versus 0.69 +/- 0.06 for malnourished patients) and inspiratory muscle weakness (PImax = 51 +/- 16.5 for the normally nourished and 34 +/- 12.2 for the malnourished population). We conclude that malnourished patients with COPD are characterized by a relative increase in resting energy requirements and, specifically, increased energy requirements for augmenting ventilation. This increase in energy requirements may result from the increased mechanical work load associated with severe COPD and/or a reduced ventilatory muscle efficiency.