To determine whether the differences in fasting glucose responses in men, women and children could be related to differences in glucoregulatory hormone secretion or availability of circulating gluconeogenic substrates, 20 adults (10 men and 10 women) were fasted for 86 hr and 15 children (6.1 +/- 0.8 yr, mean +/- SE) were fasted for 30 hr. Circulating concentrations of glucose, ketone bodies, potential gluconeogenic substrates and glucoregulatory hormones were determined at frequent intervals. In the postprandial state (1-14 hr fasting), substrate and hormone concentrations were similar in all groups with the exception of plasma glutamine concentrations which were higher in men (640 +/- 20 microM) than in women of children (490 +/- 20 microM and 480 +/- 50 microM, respectively, p less than 0.01 for both). Following 30 hr fasting children had the lowest glucose (53 +/- 3 mg/dl) and alanine (167 +/- 17 microM) concentrations and men had the highest (72 +/- 3 mg/dl and 279 +/- 16 microM, respectively) whereas those of women were intermediate (64 +/- 3 mg/dl and 226 +/- 19 microM. respectively). Following 30 hr of fasting betahydroxybutyrate concentrations were highest in children and lowest in men (the children, 3.7 +/- 0.4 mM; women, 1.7 +/- 0.2 mM and men 0.9 +/- 0.2 mM, p less than 0.02 between all groups). An inverse relationship (p less than 0.001 was observed between beta-hydroxybutyrate and glucose concentrations throughout the fast for each group (r greater than 0.92). Although plasma cortisol concentrations were higher in women and children when compared to those of the men, no differences in growth hormone, glucagon, or insulin concentrations were observed among the three groups studied. Differences in plasma substrate responses to fasting among the groups studied may reflect differences in glucose requirements among men, women and children, as well as the relative availability of both gluconeogenic substrate and ketone bodies.