Insulin resistance is characterized by specific changes of the composition of fatty acids in the serum lipids and in the skeletal muscle membranes. Impaired insulin sensitivity is associated with high proportions of palmitic (16:0) acid and low levels of linoleic (18:2 n-6) acid in serum. In addition, there are apparent changes of the fatty acid desaturase activities, suggesting an increased activity of the Delta9 and Delta6 desaturases and a decreased activity of the Delta5 desaturase. The activity of the fatty acid desaturases is regulated by long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids and insulin and is probably also dependent on the degree of physical activity. A high ratio between arachidonic (20:4 n-6) and dihomo-gamma linolenic (20:3 n-6) acid, as a measure of Delta5 desaturase activity, in the skeletal muscle phospholipids has been related to good insulin sensitivity. Available knowledge seems to indicate that the degree of saturation of the body lipids, and especially the proportion of palmitic acid in the lipid membranes, may be critical for insulin sensitivity. The strong relationships between the Delta5 desaturase activity, a high content of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids in the skeletal muscle, and insulin sensitivity may be due to parallel effects of diet and/or physical activity on the fatty acid composition and on insulin sensitivity.