Epidemiological data from Asian Indians from Madras (AI) and Mexican Americans (MA) and non-Hispanic Whites (NHW) from San Antonio heart study were compared to determine the possible contributions by the anthropometric measurements to the varied prevalence of noninsulin dependent diabetes mellitus (NIDDM) in these ethnic groups. MA had the highest rate of obesity (mean body mass index (BMI) 28.9 +/- 5.9 kg/m2) and the highest prevalence of diabetes (men 19.6%; women 11.8%, P < 0.001 vs other groups). NHW although had high rates of obesity (mean BMI 26.2 +/- 5.2 kg/m2) had low prevalence of diabetes (men 4.4%; women 5.7%) than the AI (men 9.9%; women 5.7%) (Mean BMI 22.3 +/- 4.4 kg/m2, P < 0.001). Although AI had lower BMI than MA, the risk conferred by BMI was similarly high in AI and MA and both the ethnic groups had higher risks than NHW. Impaired glucose tolerance (IGT) was also more prevalent in MA than in AI (men, MA vs AI, 11.8 vs 7.5%, P < 0.003; women 16.1 vs 5.5%, P < 0.001). NHW had lower prevalence of IGT in men (5.7%) and women (6.3%) which were significantly lower (P < 0.001) compared to MA only. Age and BMI were predictive factors of NIDDM in all, while waist to hip ratio (WHR) was significant only in AI and MA, although NHW had high WHR. This may be an indicator of differences in genetic susceptibility. This study also highlights the similarity in risk factors between AI and MA living in urban environment and the significance of distribution of adiposity in the comparatively lean AI.