Pima Indians are insulin resistant and hyperinsulinaemic compared with Caucasians. We investigated whether abdominal fat distribution was different between Pimas and Caucasians and whether differences in the amount of visceral fat explained metabolic differences between the groups. Total body fat (absorptiometry) and abdominal fat distribution at L4-L5 (magnetic resonance imaging) were compared in 20 Pima Indians (10 men/10 women) and 20 age-, sex- and BMI-matched Caucasians. Insulin action was measured as glucose disposal during a two-step hyperinsulinaemic-euglycaemic glucose clamp and insulin secretion was assessed in response to oral and intravenous glucose tolerance tests. By design, percent body fat was similar in Pimas and Caucasians. Abdominal visceral and subcutaneous adipose tissue areas were also similar in the two groups (151+/-16 vs 139+/-15 cm2 and 489+/-61 vs 441+/-7 cm2 respectively). Plasma insulin concentrations were higher in Pimas than Caucasians in the fasting state (27+/-6 vs 11+/-2 mU/ml; p < 0.01) and after a 75-g oral glucose load (area under the curve 19975+/-2626 vs 9293+/-1847 mU x l(-1) x 180 min(-1); p < 0.005). Glucose disposal was lower in Pimas than Caucasians during both steps of the clamp and negatively correlated (after adjustment for percent body fat and sex) with visceral adipose tissue in Caucasians (partial r = -0.51, p = 0.03), but not in Pima Indians (r = -0.03, p = 0.92). Insulin secretion was not related to visceral fat independently of percent body fat in either group. We conclude that a relative increase in visceral fat does not explain insulin resistance and hyperinsulinaemia in Pima Indians.