The effects of different energy sources in the lactation diet on sow and piglet performance were assessed in association with effects on the metabolic state of the sow around peak lactation. Either maize starch (S) or soya-bean oil (F) was added to a basal diet to provide 0·34 of total digestible energy (DE) intake, such that the experimental diets provided the same daily intakes of DE and crude protein. Twenty-four multiparous sows were allocated between two groups at farrowing, each given one of the two dietary treatments for a lactation period of 28 days. Sow weight and backfat (P2) as well as individual piglet weights were measured on a weekly basis. Litter sizes were standardized to 10 piglets. Milk samples were collected from sows on days 8, 12, 17, 21 and 25 of lactation to measure milk composition and prolactin concentrations. Blood samples were taken via an ear vein catheter from a subsample (7 S, 6 F) of sows on day 14 of lactation; two pre- and seven post-feeding samples were taken at 60-min intervals to measure plasma prolactin, insulin, glycerol, triglyceride, non-esterified fatty acid, urea, b-hydroxybutyrate and glucose concentrations. There was no effect of energy source on sow weight or P2 loss or on subsequent weaning-to-oestrus interval. Sows offered starch weaned more piglets than sows offered soya-bean oil (9·4 v. 8·4, P < 0·05). Litter weight gains were higher for S than F sows in week 3 of lactation (2·2 v. 1·7 kg/day, P < 0·05), irrespective of litter size. Significantly increased plasma urea and b-hydroxybutyrate concentrations and lower post-prandial increases in plasma glucose and insulin concentrations were observed in F sows around peak lactation. Neither milk nor plasma prolactin concentrations were significantly affected by dietary treatments. The metabolic indices indicated that the F diet was more limiting in dietary glucose availability, which was associated with impaired milk yield as indicated by poorer litter performance. In conclusion, this study suggests that starch is superior to fat as an energy source in sow lactation diets, particularly in the later stages of lactation.