Evidence is accumulating that total body mass and its relative composition influence the rate of fat utilization in man. This effect can be explained by two factors operating in concert: (i) the effect of the size of the tissue mass and (ii) the nature of the fuel mix oxidized, i.e. the proportion of energy derived from fat vs. carbohydrate. In a cross-sectional study of 307 women with increasing degrees of obesity, we observed that the respiratory quotient (RQ) in post-absorptive conditions became progressively lower with increased body fatness, indicating a shift in substrate utilization. However, the RQ is known to be also influenced by the diet commonly ingested by the subjects. A short-term mixed diet overfeeding in lean and obese women has also demonstrated the high sensitivity of RQ to changes in energy balance. Following a one-day overfeeding (2500 kcal/day in excess of the previous 24 h energy expenditure), the magnitude of increase in RQ was identical in lean and obese subjects and the net efficiency of substrate utilization and storage was not influenced by the state of obesity.