Human obesity is known to be a familial disorder. We studied 130 nondiabetic adult southwestern American Indians (74 men and 56 women) from 54 families to determine whether the resting metabolic rate, as measured by indirect calorimetry, is a familial trait that is independent of individual differences in fat-free mass (estimated mass of metabolically active tissue), age, and sex. We found that most of the variance in the resting metabolic rate (83 percent, P less than 0.0001) was accounted for by three covariates--fat-free mass, age, and sex--and that fat-free mass was the most important determinant. Family membership accounted for an additional 11 percent (P less than 0.0001) of the variance in the resting metabolic rate. Thus, resting metabolic rate is a familial trait in this population, and it is independent of differences in fat-free mass, age, and sex. We also found that persons from families with lower resting metabolic rates were no more obese than persons from families with higher metabolic rates. This finding may be partly explained by the close correlation between fat-free mass and percentage of body fat (r = 0.81, P less than 0.0001), which indicates that the resting metabolic rate, as adjusted for fat-free mass, is already partly adjusted for obesity. Only prospective studies will elucidate whether the familial dependence of the resting metabolic rate is a contributing mechanism to the familial predisposition to obesity.