The overall thermogenic response to food intake measured over a whole day in 20 young nondiabetic obese women (body fat mean +/- SEM: 38.6 +/- 0.7%), was compared with that obtained in eight nonobese control women (body fat: 24.7 +/- 0.9%). The energy expenditure of the subjects was continuously measured over 24 h with a respiration chamber, and the spontaneous activity was assessed by a radar system. A new approach was used to obtain the integrated thermogenic response to the three meals ingested over the day (from 8:30 AM to 10:30 PM). This method allows to subtract the energy expended for physical activity from total energy expenditure and to calculate the integrated dietary-induced thermogenesis as the difference between the energy expended without physical activity and basal metabolic rate. The thermogenic response to the three meals (expressed in percentage of the total energy ingested) was found to be blunted in obese women (8.7 +/- 0.8%) as compared with that of controls (14.8 +/- 1.1%). There was an inverse correlation between the percentage body fat and the diet-induced thermogenesis (r = -0.61, p less than 0.001). In addition, the relative increase in diurnal urinary norepinephrine excretion was lower in obese than in the control subjects. It is concluded that a low overall thermogenic response to feeding may be a contributing factor for energy storage in some obese subjects; a blunted response of the sympathetic nervous system could explain this low thermogenic response.