The underlying pathophysiology of the metabolic syndrome is the subject of debate, with both insulin resistance and obesity considered as important factors. We evaluated the differential effects of insulin resistance and central body fat distribution in determining the metabolic syndrome as defined by the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) Adult Treatment Panel III. In addition, we determined which NCEP criteria were associated with insulin resistance and central adiposity. The subjects, 218 healthy men (n = 89) and women (n = 129) with a broad range of age (26-75 years) and BMI (18.4-46.8 kg/m2), underwent quantification of the insulin sensitivity index (Si) and intra-abdominal fat (IAF) and subcutaneous fat (SCF) areas. The metabolic syndrome was present in 34 (15.6%) of subjects who had a lower Si [median: 3.13 vs. 6.09 x 10(-5) min(-1)/(pmol/l)] and higher IAF (166.3 vs. 79.1 cm2) and SCF (285.1 vs. 179.8 cm2) areas compared with subjects without the syndrome (P < 0.001). Multivariate models including Si, IAF, and SCF demonstrated that each parameter was associated with the syndrome. However, IAF was independently associated with all five of the metabolic syndrome criteria. In multivariable models containing the criteria as covariates, waist circumference and triglyceride levels were independently associated with Si and IAF and SCF areas (P < 0.001). Although insulin resistance and central body fat are both associated with the metabolic syndrome, IAF is independently associated with all of the criteria, suggesting that it may have a pathophysiological role. Of the NCEP criteria, waist circumference and triglycerides may best identify insulin resistance and visceral adiposity in individuals with a fasting plasma glucose <6.4 mmol/l.