The gut microbiota has been implicated in host nutrient absorption and energy homeostasis. We studied the influence of different diets on body composition in germ-free (GF) and conventional (CV) mice. GF and CV male adult C3H mice were fed ad libitum a semi-synthetic low-fat diet (LFD; carbohydrate–protein–fat ratio: 41:42:17; 19·8 kJ/g), a high-fat diet (HFD; 41:16:43; 21·4 kJ/g) or a commercial Western diet (WD; 41:19:41; 21·5 kJ/g). There was no difference in body weight gain between GF and CV mice on the LFD. On the HFD, GF mice gained more body weight and body fat than CV mice, and had lower energy expenditure. GF mice on the WD gained significantly less body fat than GF mice on the HFD. GF mice on both HFD and WD showed increased intestinal mRNA expression of fasting-induced adipose factor/angiopoietin-like protein 4 (Fiaf/Angptl4), but they showed no major changes in circulating Fiaf/Angptl4 compared with CV mice. The faecal microbiota composition of the CV mice differed between diets: the proportion of Firmicutes increased on both HFD and WD at the expense of the Bacteroidetes. This increase in the Firmicutes was mainly due to the proliferation of one family within this phylum: the Erysipelotrichaceae. We conclude that the absence of gut microbiota does not provide a general protection from diet-induced obesity, that intestinal production of Fiaf/Angptl4 does not play a causal role in gut microbiota-mediated effects on fat storage and that diet composition affects gut microbial composition to larger extent than previously thought.