There is debate over the casual factors for the rise in body weight in the UK. The present study investigates whether increases between 1986 and 2000 for men and women were a result of increases in mean total energy intake, decreases in mean physical activity levels or both. Estimates of mean total energy intake in 1986 and 2000 were derived from food availability data adjusted for wastage. Estimates of mean body weight for adults aged 19–64 years were derived from nationally representative dietary surveys conducted in 1986–7 and 2000–1. Predicted body weight in 1986 and 2000 was calculated using an equation relating body weight to total energy intake and sex. Differences in predicted mean body weight and actual mean body weight between the two time points were compared. Monte Carlo simulation methods were used to assess the stability of the estimates. The predicted increase in mean body weight due to changes in total energy intake between 1986 and 2000 was 4·7 (95 % credible interval 4·2, 5·3) kg for men and 6·4 (95 % credible interval 5·9, 7·1) kg for women. Actual mean body weight increased by 7·7 kg for men and 5·4 kg for women between the two time points. We conclude that increases in mean total energy intake are sufficient to explain the increase in mean body weight for women between 1986 and 2000, but for men, the increase in mean body weight is likely to be due to a combination of increased total energy intake and reduced physical activity levels.