Obesity could be due to excess energy intake or decreased energy expenditure (EE). To evaluate this, we studied 18 obese females (148 +/- 8% of ideal body weight [IBW], mean +/- SD) before and after achieving and stabilizing at IBW for at least 2 mo and a control group of 14 never obese females (< 110% of IBW or < 30% fat). In the obese, reduced obese, and never obese groups, the percent of body fat was 41 +/- 4%, 27 +/- 4%, and 25 +/- 3%; total energy expenditure (TEE) was 2704 +/- 449, 2473 +/- 495, and 2259 +/- 192 kcal/24 h; while resting metabolic rate was 1496 +/- 169, 1317 +/- 159, and 1341 +/- 103 kcal/24 h, respectively. 15 obese subjects who withdrew from the study had a mean initial body composition and EE similar to the subjects who were successful in achieving IBW. In 10 subjects followed for at least one year after stabilizing at IBW there was no significant relationship between the deviation from predicted TEE at IBW and weight regain. These studies indicate that, in a genetically heterogeneous female population, neither the propensity to become obese nor to maintain the obese state are due to an inherent metabolic abnormality characterized by a low EE.