Background Low-grade inflammation has been hypothesized to underlie the coronary artery disease (CAD) risk associated with the metabolic syndrome, but the evidence is not conclusive. For peripheral arterial disease (PAD; as measured by the ankle-arm index), this association has not been studied before. The aim was to study whether the association between the metabolic syndrome and CAD or the severity of PAD can be explained by low-grade inflammation. Methods The Cohort study Diabetes and Atherosclerosis Maastricht population includes 574 subjects, with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, of whom 560 were included in the analyses (343 males; age: 59.5 +/- 7.0 years). The inflammation markers that were measured were C-reactive protein, interleukin 6, soluble vascular cell adhesion molecule-1, soluble intercellular adhesion molecule-1 and serum amyloid A. All analyses were adjusted for age, sex and smoking. Results Logistic regression showed that the metabolic syndrome was significantly associated with CAD [odds ratio (OR) = 1.86, 95% CI: 1.21; 2.84, P = 0.004]. Further adjustment for inflammatory status, as captured in a combination of the inflammation markers (using an averaged Z-score), resulted in significant associations of both the metabolic syndrome and inflammatory status with CAD [OR(metabolic syndrome) (95% CI) = 1.58 (1.01; 2.46), P = 0.044; OR(inflammation) (95% CI) = 1.59 (1.14; 2.21), P = 0.007]. Linear regression analysis showed similar results for the ankle-arm index. Conclusions The association between the metabolic syndrome, on the one hand, and prevalence of CAD or the severity of PAD, on the other, can be partly but not completely, 26% and 29% respectively, explained by low-grade inflammation.