Body fatness and the components of energy expenditure in children aged 5–14 years were investigated. In a group of seventy-nine healthy children (thirty-nine female, forty male), mean age 10·0 (sd 2·8) years, comprising twenty-seven Maori, twenty-six Pacific Island and twenty-six European, total energy expenditure (TEE) was determined over 10 d using the doubly-labelled water method. Resting metabolic rate (RMR) was measured by indirect calorimetry and physical activity level (PAL) was calculated as TEE:RMR. Fat-free mass (FFM), and hence fat mass, was derived from the 18O-dilution space using appropriate values for FFM hydration in children. Qualitative information on physical activity patterns was obtained by questionnaire. Maori and Pacific children had a higher BMI than European children (P<0·003), but % body fat was similar for the three ethnic groups. The % body fat increased with age for girls (r 0·42, P=0·008), but not for boys. Ethnicity was not a significant predictor of RMR adjusted for FFM and fat mass. TEE and PAL, adjusted for body weight and age, were higher in Maori than European children (P<0·02), with Pacific children having intermediate values. PAL was inversely correlated with % body fat in boys (r −0·43, P=0·006), but was not significantly associated in girls. The % body fat was not correlated with reported time spent inactive or outdoors. Ethnic-related differences in total and activity-related energy expenditure that might account for higher obesity rates in Maori and Pacific children were not seen. Low levels of physical activity were associated with increased body fat in boys but not in girls.