The transition from a high carbohydrate to a high fat diet may explain in part the dramatic increase in the prevalence of noninsulin-dependent diabetes mellitus among Pima Indians over the last century. In this study, 12 Pimas and 12 caucasians, all nondiabetic, were admitted to a metabolic ward and, in random order, fed 2 14-day weight-maintaining diets: a traditional Pima diet (percentage of calories: carbohydrate, 70% fat, 15%; protein, 15%) and a high fat modern diet (carbohydrate, 30%; fat, 50%; protein, 20%). Carbohydrate metabolism was characterized using the modified iv glucose tolerance test (minimal model), the acute insulin responses to arginine during a 3-step glycemic clamp, and the oral glucose tolerance test. Compared with the traditional diet, the modern diet was associated with a decrease in oral glucose tolerance (P less than 0.01) and higher plasma cholesterol concentrations (P less than 0.02). The decline in glucose tolerance was associated with similar insulin-mediated, but 23% lower glucose-mediated (P less than 0.001), glucose disposal, a 17% lower acute insulin response to glucose (P less than 0.03), a 9% lower beta-cell sensitivity to glucose (P less than 0.02), and similar beta-cell capacities. Pimas and caucasians responded similarly, except for larger changes in plasma lipids among the Pimas. Since glucose-mediated glucose disposal, beta-cell function, and glucose tolerance deteriorated on the modern diet, it is likely that diet composition affects the prevalence of noninsulin-dependent diabetes mellitus in both Pimas and caucasians.