Little is known about the effect of dietary carbohydrate, glycaemic index (GI) and glycaemic load (GL) on the risk of the metabolic syndrome, especially in populations with white rice as the staple food. The study examined the cross-sectional relationship between carbohydrate, GI, GL and risk of the metabolic syndrome. There were a total of 910 middle-aged Korean adults. Dietary carbohydrate, GI and GL were determined by an interview-administered FFQ. The metabolic syndrome was defined using the modified criteria published in the Third Report of the National Cholesterol Education Program Adult Treatment Panel III. The risk of developing the metabolic syndrome was positively related to dietary carbohydrate (P for trend = 0·03), GI (P for trend = 0·03) and GL intakes (P for trend = 0·02) in women after adjusting for potential confounding variables. Among the components of developing the metabolic syndrome, the risk of high TAG and low HDL-cholesterol were positively related to high GI and GL intakes in women. The risk of developing the metabolic syndrome was considerably higher in the highest quintiles of carbohydrate (OR 6·44; 95 % CI 2·16, 19·2), GI (OR 10·4; 95 % CI 3·24, 33·3) and GL intakes (OR 6·68; 95 % CI 2·30, 19·4) than in the lowest quintiles among women with a BMI ≥ 25 kg/m2. However, there was no difference in risk across quintiles of carbohydrate, GI and GL among women with a BMI < 25 kg/m2. In conclusion, both the quantity and quality of carbohydrate intake has a positive relationship with the risk of the metabolic syndrome in women but this relationship was dependent on the BMI level.