Fasting is known to result in marked decreases in urinary urea nitrogen excretion over a 7-day period. In the present studies, changes in whole body protein breakdown rates and in the circulating levels of a number of hormones involved in protein anabolism and catabolism were systematically studied in nine obese subjects after 12 h and after 7 days of fasting. Whole body protein breakdown rates, measured with a primed continuous infusion of L-[U-14C]lysine, were decreased after 7 days of fasting (1.54 +/- 0.12 g/kg . day) compared to those after 12 h of fasting (1.96 +/- 0.10 g/kg . day). Plasma insulin decreased and glucagon increased after 7 days of fasting, resulting in an increased glucagon to insulin molar ratio. Plasma cortisol, urinary free cortisol excretion plasma rT3 levels, and branched chain amino acid levels increased after 7 days of fasting. Serum lysine levels, used for the calculations of whole body protein breakdown rates, were not changed. We conclude: 1) decreased whole body protein breakdown contributes significantly to the decreased nitrogen excretion observed with fasting in obese subjects; and 2) a decrease in circulating levels of free T3 may lead to this adaptive decrease in protein breakdown in fasted obese subjects, since the other hormones measured either did not change or changed in a catabolic direction.