It has been suggested that the lower prevalence of cardiovascular disease in women before menopause in comparison with men may be explained by differences in body fat distribution, plasma lipoprotein levels and indices of plasma glucose-insulin homeostasis. Thus, gender differences in visceral adipose tissue accumulation measured by computed tomography and metabolic variables were studied in 80 men and 69 pre-menopausal women, aged 23-50 years. Despite the fact that women had higher levels of total body fat (p < 0.0001), they displayed lower areas of abdominal visceral adipose tissue (p < 0.06) and a lower ratio of abdominal visceral to mid-thigh adipose tissue areas than men (p < 0.0001). After adjustment for body fat mass, women generally displayed a more favourable risk profile than men which included higher plasma HDL2-cholesterol and lower plasma insulin, apolipoprotein B and triglyceride levels (p < 0.01). Metabolic variables adjusted for body fat mass were then compared between genders after control for differences in abdominal visceral adipose tissue area. After such controls, variables related to plasma glucose-insulin homeostasis were no longer significantly different between men and women. Gender differences for plasma concentrations of triglyceride, apolipoprotein B and the ratio of HDL2-cholesterol/HDL3-cholesterol also disappeared, whereas plasma concentrations of HDL-cholesterol, HDL2-cholesterol as well as the ratio of HDL-cholesterol/total cholesterol remained significantly higher in women than in men (p < 0.01). These results suggest that abdominal visceral adipose tissue is an important correlate of gender differences in cardiovascular disease risk. However, additional factors are likely to be involved in gender differences in plasma HDL-cholesterol levels.