In six young obese women (mean weight 85 +/- 3 kg) with a childhood history of obesity, and in six young nonobese women (mean weight 55 +/- 2 kg), the energy expenditure was measured during 24 h in a respiratory chamber with a maintenance energy intake. The next day, the thermogenic response to a mixed meal was investigated by using an open circuit indirect calorimetry hood system. In addition, five of the same obese women were similarly studied after a mean weight loss of 12.1 kg (14% of initial body weight) consecutive to an 11-wk hypocaloric diet (protein-supplemented modified fast). Expressed in absolute terms, the total 24 h and basal energy expenditures were found to be significantly greater in the obese (2208 +/- 105 and 1661 +/- 56 kcal/24 h, respectively) than in the controls (1746 +/- 61 and 1230 +/- 40 kcal/24 h, respectively). After weight loss, both the total 24-h and the basal energy expenditures were significantly reduced (2009 +/- 99 kcal/24 h and 1423 +/- 43 kcal/24 h respectively), but both values were still greater than that of the control subjects. The thermogenic response to the mixed meal (a liquid diet containing 17, 54, and 29% as protein, carbohydrate, and lipid calories, respectively, and an energy level determined to cover 60% of the basal energy expenditure computed for 24 h) was found to be significantly reduced in the obese as compared to controls (ie, 7.6 +/- 0.4% versus 9.5 +/- 0.4% of the energy content of the load, respectively, p less than 0.025). After weight loss, the postprandial thermogenesis of the obese was still markedly reduced (ie, 6.2 +/- 0.8%). Both before and after weight loss, the relative increase in diurnal urinary norepinephrine excretion was found to be lower in the obese than in controls, when compared to the nocturnal values. These results show that the greater 24 h energy expenditure of obese women is entirely due to their higher basal metabolic rate. The lower thermogenic response to the meal in the obese supports the concept of a thermogenic defect which can favor energy gain; furthermore, the unchanged response after weight loss in the obese suggests that the thermogenic defect may be a cause rather than a consequence of obesity.