Abstract Gastric emptying of a digestible solid and liquid meal and oesophageal emptying of a solid bolus were measured with scintigraphic techniques in 45 randomly selected insulin-dependent diabetics and in 22 control subjects. In the diabetics, the relationships between oesophageal emptying, gastric emptying, age, duration of diabetes mellitus, upper gastrointestinal symptoms, glycaemic control and the complications, autonomic neuropathy, peripheral neuropathy and retinopathy were examined. The lag period before solid food left the stomach was not significantly different in diabetics compared with control subjects, but the percentage retention of solid food at 100 min was greater (P < 0.001) in the diabetic subjects. Both the early phase (percentage retention at 10 min) and the 50% emptying time for liquid gastric emptying were delayed (P < 0.001) in the diabetic subjects. Of the diabetics, 58% had delayed gastric emptying of either the solid and/or the liquid meal; oesophageal emptying was delayed in 42%. Upper gastrointestinal symptoms correlated poorly with both gastric and oesophageal emptying. Oesophageal emptying, solid gastric emptying and the liquid 50% emptying time correlated with the severity of autonomic nerve dysfunction (P < 0.05). The early phase of liquid emptying (retention at 10 min) was significantly slower (P < 0.05) in patients with mean plasma glucose concentrations of > 15 mmol/l during the gastric emptying test and the lag period for solid emptying correlated with both the glycosylated haemoglobin and mean plasma glucose concentrations.