Multiple infectious causes of diarrhea are known in patients with HIV/AIDS. Maldigestion and malabsorption have been reported in patients with HIV/AIDS and may be independent of infectious etiologies. Among ambulatory patients with HIV/AIDS, we examined the prevalence of fat malabsorption (steatorrhea). Sixty-one patients with unexplained diarrhea (defined as > 2 stools/d) and/or weight loss despite adequate caloric intake (and without clinical evidence of chronic pancreatitis) were evaluated in our outpatient Gastroenterology-Nutrition Clinic between March 1, 1993, and July 1994. Patients were instructed by a dietitian to follow a > or = 100 g/d fat diet for 24 h before submitting a stool sample for qualitative (or quantitative) fecal fat determination. Forty-five patients, 32 with ongoing diarrhea and 13 without diarrhea, submitted stool samples. Twenty-two of 45 patients (49%) had qualitative or quantitative steatorrhea, 16/32 with diarrhea (50%) and 6/13 patients without diarrhea (46%). Thirty of 32 patients with diarrhea had had extensive microbiologic and/or endoscopic evaluations. Only 9 patients had a detectable intestinal pathogen, 5 patients had cytomegalovirus (4 treated), 4 patients had cryptosporidia (3 treated), and 1 patient had microsporidia. Steatorrhea, as determined by abnormal qualitative fecal fat, is detectable in nearly 50% of patients with HIV/AIDS. Fat malabsorption appears to be a primary defect in these patients independent of detectable pathogens. Assessment of fat malabsorption should be considered in patients with unexplained weight loss or diarrhea before extensive evaluation for opportunistic infections.