Insulin resistance, defined as a defect in insulin-mediated control of glucose metabolism in tissues — prominently in muscle, fat and liver — is one of the earliest manifestations of a constellation of human diseases that includes type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. These diseases are typically associated with intertwined metabolic abnormalities, including obesity, hyperinsulinaemia, hyperglycaemia and hyperlipidaemia. Insulin resistance is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Recent genetic and biochemical studies suggest a key role for adipose tissue in the development of insulin resistance, potentially by releasing lipids and other circulating factors that promote insulin resistance in other organs. These extracellular factors perturb the intracellular concentration of a range of intermediates, including ceramide and other lipids, leading to defects in responsiveness of cells to insulin. Such intermediates may cause insulin resistance by inhibiting one or more of the proximal components in the signalling cascade downstream of insulin (insulin receptor, insulin receptor substrate (IRS) proteins or AKT). However, there is now evidence to support the view that insulin resistance is a heterogeneous disorder that may variably arise in a range of metabolic tissues and that the mechanism for this effect likely involves a unified insulin resistance pathway that affects a distal step in the insulin action pathway that is more closely linked to the terminal biological response. Identifying these targets is of major importance, as it will reveal potential new targets for treatments of diseases associated with insulin resistance.