Previous animal studies have shown that the nature and duration of postprandial motility in the small bowel depend both on the caloric load and the chemical composition of a meal. It is not clear whether this is also true for the human small bowel. Therefore we investigated the motor activity of the human small bowel in response to nutrient liquids of different caloric value and different chemical composition. Ten human volunteers underwent three separate, 24-hr ambulatory manometry studies. They drank water, a pure glucose solution, and Intralipid 10% in volumes of both 300 and 600 ml. The caloric value of the nutrient liquids was 330 and 660 kcal, respectively. Records were analyzed visually for the reappearance of phase III of the MMC after ingestion of a test liquid, and a validated computer program calculated the incidence and amplitude of contractions during the postprandial period. Neither duration of the postprandial interval nor the mean incidence or mean amplitude of contractions were different between the fat and the carbohydrate solutions, but phase III reappeared significantly later after ingestion of the nutrient liquids than after water (P = 0.0002). Duration of the postprandial interval also depended on the volume or the caloric load of a liquid meal (P = 0.0012). Mean incidence of contractions tended to be higher after ingestion of nutrient liquids than after water (P = 0.059). We conclude that in ambulant subjects, small bowel motor activity in response to chemically diverse liquid meals is remarkably uniform. This is true for the duration of the postprandial motor activity, as well as the incidence and amplitude of contractions during that period. The caloric value of a liquid meal, however, regulates the duration of the postprandial interval in the human small bowel.