Hepatic glycogen concentration was measured in six subjects with insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (IDDM) and nine weight-matched control subjects using 13C nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy during a day in which three isocaloric mixed meals were ingested. The relative fluxes of the direct and indirect (3 carbon units-->-->glycogen) pathways of hepatic glycogen synthesis were also assessed using [1-13C]glucose in combination with acetaminophen to noninvasively sample the hepatic UDP-glucose pool. Mean fasting hepatic glycogen content was similar in the two groups. After each meal, hepatic glycogen content increased, peaking 4-5 h after the meal in both groups. By 11:00 p.m. the IDDM subjects had synthesized only 30% of the glycogen that was synthesized by the control group [IDDM subjects, net increment = 44 +/- 20 (mean +/- SE) mM; control subjects, net increment = 144 +/- 14 mM; P < 0.05]. After breakfast the flux through the gluconeogenic pathway relative to the direct pathway of hepatic glycogen synthesis was 1.7-fold greater in the IDDM subjects (59 +/- 4%) than in the control subjects (35 +/- 4%, P < 0.0003). In conclusion, under mixed meal conditions, subjects with poorly controlled IDDM have a major defect in net hepatic glycogen synthesis and augmented hepatic gluconeogenesis. The former abnormality may result in an impaired glycemic response to counterregulatory hormones, whereas both abnormalities may contribute to postprandial hyperglycemia.