In the liver, the in vivo assessment of metabolic functions is limited by methodologic problems. The present evidence suggests that the liver contributes to 20-30% of whole body energy expenditure. Hepatic fuel selection can change considerably under different circumstances. During tissue catabolism (i.e., depletion of glycogen stores, increased lipid oxidation), the "hepatic respiratory quotient (RQ)" is lower than whole body RQ, suggesting that hepatic catabolism exceeds whole body catabolism. By contrast, the hepatic RQ may exceed whole body RQ during tissue anabolism (i.e., after full repletion of hepatic glycogen stores and significant lipogenesis). In cirrhosis, both the hepatic RQ and the whole body RQ are markedly reduced. When compared with the whole body level, the cirrhosis-induced decrease in the hepatic RQ is more pronounced. Given that liver catabolism exceeds (or possibly precedes) whole body catabolism, early nutritional support is mandatory in cirrhotic patients. The assessment of hepatic, in addition to whole body, energy metabolism may provide a basis for future recommendations of more specific nutritional support in patients with liver diseases.