Zinc absorption was measured in 29 patients with inflammatory bowel disease and a wide spectrum of disease activity to determine its relationship to disease activity, general nutritional state, and zinc status. Patients with severe disease requiring either supplementary oral or parenteral nutrition were excluded. The mean 65ZnCl2 absorption, in the patients, determined using a 65Zn and 51Cr stool-counting test, 45 +/- 17% (SD), was significantly lower than the values, 54 +/- 16%, in 30 healthy controls, P less than 0.05. Low 65ZnCl2 absorption was related to undernutrition, but not to disease activity in the absence of undernutrition or to zinc status estimated by leukocyte zinc measurements. Mean plasma zinc or leukocyte zinc concentrations in patients did not differ significantly from controls, and only two patients with moderate disease had leukocyte zinc values below the 5th percentile of normal. In another group of nine patients with inflammatory bowel disease of mild-to-moderate severity and minimal nutritional impairment, 65Zn absorption from an extrinsically labeled turkey test meal was 31 +/- 10% compared to 33 +/- 7% in 17 healthy controls, P greater than 0.1. Thus, impairment in 65ZnCl2 absorption in the patients selected for this study was only evident in undernourished persons with moderate or severe disease activity, but biochemical evidence of zinc deficiency was uncommon, and clinical features of zinc depletion were not encountered.