BACKGROUND: Framingham risk functions are widely used for prediction of future cardiovascular disease events. They do not, however, include anthropometric measures of overweight or obesity, now considered a major cardiovascular disease risk factor. We aimed to establish the most appropriate anthropometric index and its optimal cutoff point for use as an ancillary measure in clinical practice when identifying people with increased absolute cardiovascular risk estimates. DESIGN: Analysis of a population-based, cross-sectional survey was carried out. METHODS: The 1991 Framingham prediction equations were used to compute 5 and 10-year risks of cardiovascular or coronary heart disease in 7191 participants from the Australian Diabetes, Obesity and Lifestyle Study (1999-2000). Receiver operating characteristic curve analysis was used to compare measures of body mass index (BMI), waist circumference, and waist-to-hip ratio in identifying participants estimated to be at 'high', or at 'intermediate or high' absolute risk. RESULTS: After adjustment for BMI and age, waist-to-hip ratio showed stronger correlation with absolute risk estimates than waist circumference. The areas under the receiver operating characteristic curve for waist-to-hip ratio (0.67-0.70 in men, 0.64-0.74 in women) were greater than those for waist circumference (0.60-0.65, 0.59-0.71) or BMI (0.52-0.59, 0.53-0.66). The optimal cutoff points of BMI, waist circumference and waist-to-hip ratio to predict people at 'high', or at 'intermediate or high' absolute risk estimates were 26 kg/m2, 95 cm and 0.90 in men, and 25-26 kg/m2, 80-85 cm and 0.80 in women, respectively. CONCLUSIONS: Measurement of waist-to-hip ratio is more useful than BMI or waist circumference in the identification of individuals estimated to be at increased risk for future primary cardiovascular events.