Although there is evidence that Asian Indians, Polynesians and Europeans differ in their body fat (BF)-BMI relationships, detailed comparative analysis of their underlying body composition and build characteristics is lacking. We investigated differences in the relationships between body fatness and BMI, fat distribution, muscularity, bone mineral mass, leg length and age-related changes in body composition between these ethnic groups. Cross-sectional analysis of 933 European, Maori, Pacific Island and Asian Indian adult volunteers was performed for total and percentage of BF, abdominal fat, thigh fat, appendicular muscle mass, bone mineral content and leg length measured by dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry. Asian Indian men and women (BMI of 24 and 26 kg/m2, respectively) had the same percentage of BF as Europeans with a BMI of 30 kg/m2 or Pacific men and women with BMI of 34 and 35 kg/m2, respectively. Asian Indians had more fat, both total and in the abdominal region, with less lean mass, skeletal muscle and bone mineral than all other ethnic groups. Leg length was relatively longer in Pacific men and Asian and Pacific women than in other ethnic groups. In Asian Indians, abdominal fat increased with increasing age, while the percentage of BF showed little change. In the other ethnic groups, both abdominal and total BF increased with age. In conclusion, ethnic differences in fat distribution, muscularity, bone mass and leg length may contribute to ethnic-specific relationships between body fatness and BMI. The use of universal BMI cut-off points may not be appropriate for the comparison of obesity prevalence between ethnic groups.