Total body fat and anthropometric assessments of fat distribution were examined in 23 lean and obese rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta). In addition, the relationships of central obesity to hyperinsulinemia, insulin resistance, glucose intolerance and hyperlipidemia were studied. Total body fat (as determined by the tritiated water dilution method), plasma glucose, insulin, lipoproteins (triglyceride, cholesterol and HDL- and LDL-cholesterol) and free fatty acids (FFA), and glucose disappearance rate (KG) and peripheral insulin-stimulated glucose uptake (M) were obtained. Results showed that abdominal circumference was the best predictor of body fat (r = 0.90; P < 0.001). There were strong linear relationships between abdominal circumference and plasma insulin (r = 0.66), glucose tolerance (r = -0.53), and M rate (r = -0.59) (all P < 0.05) but not to plasma glucose, lipoprotein fractions, or free fatty acids. When the subjects were grouped according to degree of obesity and insulin resistance (lean normals, obese insulin sensitive, and obese insulin resistant), the obese resistant monkeys had significantly higher plasma insulin levels, lower glucose tolerance, and significantly higher plasma triglyceride levels. We conclude that the spontaneously obese rhesus monkey is an excellent model of central obesity. Furthermore, in this model upper body obesity appears to be facilitative in the development of hyperinsulinemia, glucose intolerance and hypertriglyceridemia but does not appear to be causally related. In the rhesus monkey and in humans as well, we propose that the link between central obesity and these metabolic abnormalities may be peripheral insulin resistance.