Chronic liver disease is a major cause of morbidity and mortality in the United States. Although often used to detect liver disease, the prevalence and etiology of elevated aminotransferases are unknown. We analyzed data on adults ages 17 yr and older (N = 15,676) from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (1988-1994). Participants were classified as having elevated aminotransferase levels if either aspartate aminotransferase or alanine aminotransferase was elevated above normal. Aminotransferase elevation was classified as "explained" if there was laboratory evidence of hepatitis B or C infection, iron overload, or if there was a history of alcohol consumption. Analyses were weighted to provide national estimates. The prevalence of aminotransferase elevation in the United States was 7.9%. Aminotransferase elevation was more common in men compared to women (9.3% vs 6.6%, p = 0.002), in Mexican Americans (14.9%) and non-Hispanic blacks (8.1%) compared to non-Hispanic whites (7.1%, p < 0.001). High alcohol consumption, hepatitis B or C infection and high transferrin saturation were found in only 31.0% of cases. Aminotransferase elevation was unexplained in the majority (69.0%). In both men and women, unexplained aminotransferase elevation was significantly associated with higher body mass index, waist circumference, triglycerides, fasting insulin, and lower HDL; and with type 2 diabetes and hypertension in women (all p < 0.05). Aminotransferase elevation was common in the United States, and the majority could not be unexplained by alcohol consumption, viral hepatitis or hemochromatosis. Unexplained aminotransferase elevation was strongly associated with adiposity and other features of the metabolic syndrome, and thus may represent nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.