The hydrogen-isotopic compositions (2H/1H ratios) of lipids in microbial heterotrophs are known to vary enormously, by at least 40% (400‰) relative. This is particularly surprising, given that most C-bound H in their lipids appear to derive from the growth medium water, rather than from organic substrates, implying that the isotopic fractionation between lipids and water is itself highly variable. Changes in the lipid/water fractionation are also strongly correlated with the type of energy metabolism operating in the host. Because lipids are well preserved in the geologic record, there is thus significant potential for using lipid 2H/1H ratios to decipher the metabolism of uncultured microorganisms in both modern and ancient ecosystems. But despite over a decade of research, the precise mechanisms underlying this isotopic variability remain unclear. Differences in the kinetic isotope effects (KIEs) accompanying NADP+ reduction by dehydrogenases and transhydrogenases have been hypothesized as a plausible mechanism. However, this relationship has been difficult to prove because multiple oxidoreductases affect the NADPH pool simultaneously. Here, we cultured five diverse aerobic heterotrophs, plus five Escherichia coli mutants, and used metabolic flux analysis to show that 2H/1H fractionations are highly correlated with fluxes through NADP+-reducing and NADPH-balancing reactions. Mass-balance calculations indicate that the full range of 2H/1H variability in the investigated organisms can be quantitatively explained by varying fluxes, i.e., with constant KIEs for each involved oxidoreductase across all species. This proves that lipid 2H/1H ratios of heterotrophic microbes are quantitatively related to central metabolism and provides a foundation for interpreting 2H/1H ratios of environmental lipids and sedimentary hydrocarbons.