Preoperative parenteral nutrition (PPN) may be beneficial for severely malnourished patients who are candidates for a major elective surgical procedure. The response to PPN, however, has not been thoroughly investigated. Expansion of the extracellular water compartment may occur in some patients, producing a further decrease in the serum albumin concentration and increasing the postoperative complications. Our aims were to investigate the occurrence of and factors associated with water and sodium retention during PPN and its impact on postoperative respiratory complications. Forty-one patients with gastrointestinal cancer and severe malnutrition (weight loss > 15% and/or serum albumin < 35 g/L) were randomly allocated to two groups receiving isocaloric isonitrogenous PPN for 10 d. The Standard PPN Group (SG, n = 19) received 70% of nonprotein calories as glucose, 45 cc of water.kg-1.d-1, and 140 mEq/d of sodium chloride; and the Modified Group (MG, n = 22) received 70% of calories as fat, 30 cc of water.kg-1.d-1, and no sodium. Weight and albumin changes, diuresis, sodium and water balances, and postoperative complications were recorded. At the end of PPN, the SG showed a higher weight gain (0.8 versus -1.5 kg, P = 0.0001) and albumin decrease (-0.7 versus 2.3 g/L, P = 0.006). Diuresis and sodium balance were greater in the SG (1,230 versus 959 mL/d, P = 0.003 and 40 versus -27 mEq/d, P = 0.001). Weight changes correlated with water (r2 = 0.46, P = 0.001) and sodium (r2 = 0.62, P = 0.0001) balances. Inappropriate responses to PPN in both groups (expansion or depletion of the extracellular water compartment) were associated with a significant increase in pulmonary postoperative complications. During PPN, extracellular water expansion--as determined by increasing weight and lowering of the serum albumin concentration--and aggressive fluid therapy to treat water and sodium depletion seem crucial to the development of postoperative respiratory complications.