The rapid increase of diabetes prevalence in the US population and across all westernized world has been associated with environmental changes that promote obesity. Although dietary factors, such as total caloric intake, relative excess of dietary saturated fats content and lack of fibers, together with reduced level of physical activity clearly determine the main features of the "obesogenic" environment typical of "western" societies, the impact of lifestyle factors on obesity and diabetes appears to differ in various ethnic groups. Although ethnic-related differences in lifestyle factors may account for some of the predisposition to obesity and diabetes of various ethnic groups, genetic factors may play a more determinant role. These observations pose important public health questions in regard to strategies for treatment and prevention of diabetes both within the multiethnic US population and in the population of origin of various ethnicities. The elucidation of the pathophysiologic mechanisms responsible for the heterogeneous relationship between obesity and type 2 diabetes in various ethnicities may give important contributions to better understand the complex mechanisms involved in the development of this disease. This review examines epidemiological and pathophysiological aspects of the interaction between environment and ethnic predisposition to type 2 diabetes.