Thyroid hormones have a direct effect on the basal or resting metabolic rate in man and a permissive effect on the adaptive thermogenesis of small animals, while altering the energy expended in exercise to the extent that patients with thyroid disorders exercise to a greater or lesser degree. The physiological concepts of energy expenditure need to be seen in the context of a new method for measuring 'thyroid thermogenesis'. Thyroid hormones seem, in evolutionary terms, to have developed a thermogenic role during the transition from poikilothermy to homeothermy; they are responsible for the increased heat production required for homeotherms to maintain body temperature above that of the environment. The potential mechanisms responsible for thyroid hormone-controlled energy expenditure are complex. Uncoupled oxidative phosphorylation is probably not responsible for thyroid hormone-controlled thermogenesis except in the special case of brown adipose tissue thermogenesis, where thyroid hormones act permissively. The concept that increased ATP generation must be coupled to ATP utilization needs to be linked with the idea that thyroid hormone-controlled thermogenesis must be through inefficient pathways of metabolism. Several of these potentially important pathways of intermediary metabolism in thyroid hormone-controlled thermogenesis can now be defined and measured, but their role in the regulation of nutritionally induced alterations in thyroid status and thermogenesis remains to be explored.