We studied changes in energy utilization in mature female rats exposed to varying degrees of food restriction. Food-restricted rats showed considerable energy conservation, exhibited primarily as a reduction in the energy required for daily maintenance. When a given body weight loss was produced by starvation (3 or 6 d), changes in body composition and energy utilization differed only slightly (and temporarily) compared with the same body weight lost by partial food restriction. All food-restricted groups demonstrated a remarkable ability to reduce maintenance energy costs and to achieve zero energy balance at food intake 40-50% of controls. By contrasting these results with our previous work in food-restricted male rats, we identified possible gender differences in the response to food restriction. Females appear to preserve lean mass to a greater degree than male rats by utilizing relatively more fat for energy needs. This preference for fat as a fuel during negative energy balance suggests that females would lose less body weight for a given reduction in carcass energy than males, since fat is calorically denser than lean mass.