To further evaluate the nature of malnutrition, define at-risk groups, and confirm the efficacy of nutritional supplementation on body composition in cystic fibrosis (CF), we have conducted longitudinal and cross-sectional studies of total body potassium (TBK) in 161 unselected CF subjects aged 1 month to 17 years. TBK was determined by measurement of 40K in a whole body counter, reflecting body cell mass (BCM), the vital work-performing and growing cellular component of the body. Compared with normal TBK data for age and sex from pooled measurements of 1,629 healthy children aged 1 week to 17 years, CF infants (n = 12) diagnosed by newborn screening were depleted in TBK at diagnosis and showed catch-up with therapy by 1 year; CF children aged 2-17 years (n = 140) showed a tendency for inadequate accretion of TBK (and thus BCM) with increasing age, although the normal correlation between TBK and weight and height was maintained in the majority suggesting a pattern of nutritional stunting of growth; and malnourished CF children (n = 9) showed significant catch-up in TBK with long-term nutritional rehabilitation (85-98% of TBK predicted for weight and height). These studies suggest that potentially serious, but possibly correctable deficits, in the growth of the body cell mass as measured by TBK occur commonly in CF. These deficits may be established very early in life and if not corrected lead to progressive nutritional growth retardation with increasing age.