Milk fatty acid (FA) profile is a dynamic pattern influenced by lactational stage, energy balance and dietary composition. In the first part of this study, effects of the energy balance during the proceeding lactation [weeks 1–21 post partum (pp)] on milk FA profile of 30 dairy cows were evaluated under a constant feeding regimen. In the second part, effects of a negative energy balance (NEB) induced by feed restriction on milk FA profile were studied in 40 multiparous dairy cows (20 feed-restricted and 20 control). Feed restriction (energy balance of −63 MJ NEL/d, restriction of 49 % of energy requirements) lasted 3 weeks starting at around 100 days in milk. Milk FA profile changed markedly from week 1 pp up to week 12 pp and remained unchanged thereafter. The proportion of saturated FA (predominantly 10:0, 12:0, 14:0 and 16:0) increased from week 1 pp up to week 12 pp, whereas monounsaturated FA, predominantly the proportion of 18:1,9c decreased as NEB in early lactation became less severe. During the induced NEB, milk FA profile showed a similarly directed pattern as during the NEB in early lactation, although changes were less marked for most FA. Milk FA composition changed rapidly within one week after initiation of feed restriction and tended to adjust to the initial composition despite maintenance of a high NEB. C18:1,9c was increased significantly during the induced NEB indicating mobilization of a considerable amount of adipose tissue. Besides 18:1,9c, changes in saturated FA, monounsaturated FA, de-novo synthesized and preformed FA (sum of FA >C16) reflected energy status in dairy cows and indicated the NEB in early lactation as well as the induced NEB by feed restriction.