We evaluated seven female adolescents with anorexia nervosa to determine whether calcium metabolism was affected by their disorder. We measured calcium absorption, urinary calcium excretion, and calcium kinetics, using a dual-tracer, stable-isotope technique during the first weeks of an inpatient nutritional rehabilitation program. Results were compared with those from a control group of seven healthy adolescent girls of similar ages. The percentage of absorption of calcium was lower in subjects with anorexia nervosa than in control subjects (16.2% +/- 6.3% vs 24.6% +/- 7.2%; p < 0.05). Urinary calcium excretion was greater in subjects with anorexia nervosa than in control subjects (6.4 +/- 2.5 vs 1.6 +/- 0.7 mg.kg-1 x day-1; p < 0.01) and was associated with bone resorption rather than calcium hyper-absorption. Calcium kinetic studies demonstrated a decreased rate of bone formation and an increased rate of bone resorption. These results suggest marked abnormalities in mineral metabolism in patients with anorexia nervosa. From these results, we hypothesize that improvement in bone mineralization during recovery from anorexia nervosa will require resolution of hormonal abnormalities, including hypercortisolism, in addition to increased calcium intake.