Leptin and oestrogen are both involved in the regulation of adipose tissue deposition and feeding behaviour. We investigated whether 5 years of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) affected serum leptin and body composition differently in 89 postmenopausal women treated with HRT compared with 178 controls. At baseline, leptin was significantly correlated with oestradiol (r=0.13, P<0.05) and in multiple backward regression analysis including oestradiol and any estimate of body fat, oestradiol remained a significant determinant of leptin levels. In the control group, all estimates of body fat determined by dual energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA) or anthropometry were increased (3.6-16.9%) and leptin increased 31.3% (16.03+/-1.02 to 20.84+/-1.2 ng/ml (s.e.m.), P<0.001). In the HRT group all estimates of body composition also increased during the 5-year observation but to a lesser extent than observed in the control group (1.0-8.5%). Leptin was raised by 19.7% (17.81+/-1.32 to 20.57+/-1.65 ng/ml, P<0.001). However, the DEXA scans revealed that the control group gained 2.4-fold more fat during the 5-year observation (1.9+/-0.3 vs 0.8+/-0.4 kg, P<0.05), and especially the trunk fat increased (1.4+/-0.2 vs 0.7+/-0.3 kg, P<0.05). This was reflected in the increase in leptin levels, which were increased by 7.4% in the control group compared with the HRT group (4.81+/-0.60 vs 2.76+/-0.87 ng/ml, P<0.05). Adjusting for the difference in adipose tissue revealed that HRT had no independent effect on leptin levels. Comparisons between obese (body mass index>25 kg/m(2)) and non-obese (<25 kg/m(2)) subjects by stratifying for HRT treatment using multiple linear regression revealed that the change in fat mass was significantly less among treated subjects (P=0.038) and especially in the non-obese subjects (P=0.001). The change in trunk fat was similarly correlated with treatment status (P=0.029) and with the degree of obesity (P=0.006). In conclusion, 5 years of HRT treatment significantly reduced fat mass accumulation, especially in the trunk region. This effect of HRT was more pronounced in non-obese as compared with obese subjects. The HRT-induced reduction in fat mass seems not to be mediated by leptin.