Loss of body protein and hyperglycaemia represent typical features of the stress response to surgery and anaesthesia. This appears to be particularly pronounced in patients with diabetes mellitus type 2. The aim of the present study was to highlight the greater benefit of amino acids (AA) as represented by positive protein balance and maintenance of blood glucose homoeostasis compared with dextrose (DEX) in diabetic patients after colorectal surgery. A total of thirteen patients underwent a 5 h stable isotope infusion study (2 h fasted, 3 h fed with an infusion of AA (n 6) or DEX (n 7)) on the second post-operative day. Glucose and protein kinetics were assessed by using the stable isotopes l-[1-13C]leucine and [6,6-2H2]glucose. The transition from fasted to fed state decreased endogenous glucose production (P < 0·001) in both groups, with a more profound effect in the DEX group (P = 0·031). In contrast, total glucose production was increased by the provision of DEX while being lowered by AA (P = 0·021). Feeding decreased protein oxidation (P = 0·009) and protein synthesis in the AA group, whereas DEX infusion did not affect oxidation and even decreased protein synthesis. Therefore, only AA shifted protein balance to a positive value, while patients in the DEX group remained in a catabolic state (P < 0·001). Parenteral nutritional support with AA rather than with DEX is an effective strategy to achieve a positive protein balance while maintaining normoglycaemia in diabetic patients after colorectal surgery.