1. Like many indigenous populations, Australian Aboriginal people have developed high rates of obesity, non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (NIDDM) and cardiovascular and renal disease following the transition from a traditional to an 'urbanized' lifestyle. These conditions tend to cluster as part of the insulin resistance syndrome. 2. The prevalence of overweight people and obesity in Australian Aboriginal populations ranges from 0% in communities with a traditionally orientated lifestyle to well over 50% in the worst affected communities. There is a predominantly central pattern of fat deposition in both men and women, which is associated with greater insulin resistance and cardiovascular risk than is peripheral fat deposition. 3. Data from four previously published, population-based surveys in Aboriginal communities were combined to give a cohort of 1079 subjects of 15 years and older. Several conditions of the insulin resistance syndrome had a strong, positive association with increasing body mass index (BMI): NIDDM (both cross-sectionally and longitudinally), hypertension, dyslipidaemia and albuminuria. Remaining lean (BMI < 20 kg/m2) protected even older Aboriginal people from these conditions to a large extent. 4. Community based programmes to increase physical activity and improve dietary quality are likely to be the major means by which conditions associated with insulin resistance can be prevented in Aboriginal populations.