Total body water (TBW) estimation is one of a number of basic techniques required for the determination of body composition in normal and malnourished subjects. When combined with total body nitrogen (TBN) analysis by prompt gamma neutron activation, an accurate compartmental model of in vivo body composition can be formed, providing valuable nutritional and other data. This study examines the role of TBW on its own in evaluating lean body mass. Total body water was studied in six male and five female subjects using deuterium oxide and a Fourier transform infrared spectrometer. The lean body mass calculated from the results was compared with the lean body mass deduced from established total body nitrogen measurements. A four-compartment model was also used to calculate lean body mass. Excellent agreement was shown between lean body mass derived from TBW, the four-compartment model and TBN. Hence, TBW can provide a fast, cost-efficient method for evaluating normal subjects. However, for disease-induced malnutrition, or highly developed athletes, both TBN and TBW measurements are essential to establish an accurate picture of their body composition. TBW measurements alone can monitor the hydration state of patients and as such have a useful diagnostic value.