In adults, visceral fat accumulation is associated with insulin resistance and dyslipidemia. The cause-and-effect nature of these relationships is not clear. The objective of the present study was to determine if similar relationships exist in prepubertal children. Specifically, we determined whether visceral fat was associated with fasting insulin, insulin sensitivity (Si), serum triglyceride (TG) concentration, or serum HDL cholesterol (HDL-C) concentration; whether visceral fat or Si was independently related to lipids; and whether ethnicity influenced the relationship between visceral fat and risk factors. Subjects were 61 prepubertal African-American and Caucasian children. Total body fat was determined by dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry, visceral fat by computed tomography, and insulin sensitivity by the tolbutamide-modified, frequently sampled intravenous glucose tolerance test with minimal modeling. In multiple linear regression analysis (adjusting for total fat, sex, and ethnicity), visceral fat was independently related to TG (P < 0.05) and fasting insulin (P < 0.001), but not Si (P = 0.425). Total body fat was independently related to Si (P < 0.001). Si was independently related to fasting insulin (P < 0.001) but not to TG or HDL-C (P = 0.941 and 0.201, respectively). Si in African-Americans was 42% lower than in Caucasians (0.50 +/- 0.05 vs. 0.86 +/- 0.11 x 10(-5) min(-1) x pmol(-1) x l, mean +/- SE after adjusting for total fat, P < 0.001). Nonetheless, ethnicity was not independently related to either TG or HDL-C (P = 0.075 and 0.619, respectively, after adjusting for total and visceral fat and sex). The slopes of the relationships of total and visceral fat with risk factors did not differ with ethnicity. In conclusion, visceral fat appears metabolically unique in children, being independently associated with elevated TG and insulin but not Si. Obese children and African-American children were more insulin resistant, independent of visceral fat accumulation. Lower Si was associated with higher, faster insulin, but not dyslipidemia. Thus, obesity, visceral fat accumulation, and ethnicity in children may confer negative, but independent, health risks.