Women who consume a diet low in fat are at lower risk for breast cancer than women whose diet is relatively high in fat. To investigate the effects of a low fat diet on estrogen metabolism, six normal young women were studied while eating a Western-style high fat diet and again after 2 months of consuming a defined low fat diet. Both studies involved the simultaneous administration of [3H]estradiol [( 3H]E2) orally and [14C]E2 iv and the subsequent collection of multiple blood samples and urine for 96 h. The blood samples were analyzed for radioactivity as estrone (E1), E2, their glucuronides, and E1 sulfate. An aliquot of the pooled 96-h urine was analyzed for radioactivity as the glucuronides and sulfates of E1, E2, estriol, 16 alpha-hydroxyestrone (16 alpha-OHE1), and the catechol estrogens, i.e. 2-hydroxy and 2-methoxy metabolites of E1 and E2. The low fat diet resulted in a consistent and significant (P less than 0.05) decrease in urinary excretion of both 16-hydroxylated metabolites, estriol and 16 alpha-OHE1, expressed as a percentage of administered dose of [3H]E2 and [14C]E2, and an increase in the excretion of the catechol estrogens. These changes in metabolite excretion were not, however, mirrored by changes in the MCRs or conversion ratios of either [3H]E2 or [14C]E2. Thus, while neither the clearance of E2 from the blood nor its absorption from the intestinal tract was altered by a relatively short term decrease in dietary fat, there was a shift in the pattern of urinary metabolites away from the purported carcinogenic estrogen (16 alpha-OHE1) and toward the less active catechol estrogens. This may represent an important mechanism whereby low fat diets decrease the risk of breast cancer.