OBJECTIVE: To determine which anthropometric measurement is the most reliable alternative for fat distribution as measured by dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DXA). DESIGN: Population-based survey carried out in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. SUBJECTS AND METHODS: A total of 376 individuals (200 women) with a mean age of 36.5 years and mean body mass index (BMI) of 24.0 (+/-3.1) kg/m2 underwent various anthropometric and DXA measurements of central (CFM) and peripheral fat mass (PFM). Furthermore, for the assessment of apple-shaped body composition, CFM-to-PFM ratio was calculated. Anthropometric measurements were waist and hip circumference, waist-to-hip ratio (WHR), BMI, waist/length and the skinfold thickness of biceps, triceps, suprailiacal (SI), subscapular (SS) and upper leg. We determined whether equations of combined anthropometrics were even more reliable for the assessment of fat mass. RESULTS: In both women and men, reliable alternatives for CFM are central skinfolds and waist (Pearson's correlation (r) >or= 0.8). Peripheral skinfolds are the best predictors of PFM (r >or= 0.8). In contrast, WHR correlated only marginally with any of the DXA measurements. Equations based on several anthropometric variables correlate with CFM even better (R2 >or= 0.8). CFM-to-PFM ratio has the highest correlation with the ratio (SS+SI)/BMI in women (r = 0.66) and waist/length in men (r = 0.71). Equations are reasonable alternatives of CFM-to-PFM ratio (R2 >or= 0.5). CONCLUSION: Waist and skinfolds are reliable alternatives for the measurement of body fat mass in a cohort of Caucasian adults. WHR is not appropriate for the measurement of fat distribution.