Nutrients-and by extension biosynthetic capacity-positively impact cell size in organisms throughout the tree of life. In bacteria, cell size is reduced three-fold in response to nutrient starvation or accumulation of the alarmone ppGpp, a global inhibitor of biosynthesis. However, whether biosynthetic capacity as a whole determines cell size or if particular anabolic pathways are more important than others remains an open question. Utilizing a top-down approach, here we identify flux through lipid synthesis as the primary biosynthetic determinant of Escherichia coli cell size. Altering flux through lipid synthesis recapitulated the impact of altering nutrients on cell size and morphology, while defects in other biosynthetic pathways either did not impact size or altered size in a lipid-dependent manner. Together our findings support a model in which lipid availability dictates cell envelope capacity and ppGpp functions as a linchpin linking surface area expansion with cytoplasmic volume to maintain cellular integrity.