BACKGROUND: Australian indigenous people have a body shape and cardiovascular risk profiles different from that of other ethnic populations. This present study aims to examine the association of anthropometric indices with diabetes, hypertension and dyslipidemia, and to determine what indices can best predict these individual risk factors for the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD). DESIGN: A cross-sectional study of Australian Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders. METHODS: A total of 747 Australian Aboriginal people and 439 Torres Strait Islanders aged 25 years and over were examined between 1993 and 1997. Body weight, height, waist and hip circumferences, blood pressure, plasma glucose, triglycerides, total and high-density lipoprotein cholesterol were measured. RESULTS: The best predictor of hypertension among five anthropometric indices was waist : height ratio for Australian Aboriginal people and waist circumference for Torres Strait Islanders. Waist : hip ratio (WHR) was the best predictor for both diabetes and dyslipidemia in both populations. In multivariate regression analyses, WHR and body mass index were independently associated with the 10-year predicted absolute probability of coronary heart disease (CHD) for Torres Strait Islanders. However, overall WHR appeared to be the best predictor of the estimated CHD risk for both populations. CONCLUSIONS: This study shows that WHR was the best predictor for diabetes, dyslipidemia and absolute CHD risk in Australian Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders. Incorporating WHR into routine health examinations in Australian indigenous people will enhance the evaluation of CVD risk.