Impaired glucose tolerance often presages the development of non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus. We have studied insulin action and secretion in 24 Pima Indians before and after the development of impaired glucose tolerance and in 254 other subjects representing the whole spectrum of glucose tolerance, including subjects with overt non-insulin-dependent diabetes. The transition from normal to impaired glucose tolerance was associated with a decrease in glucose uptake during hyperinsulinemia, from 0.018 to 0.016 mmol per minute (from 3.3 to 2.8 mg per kilogram of fat-free body mass per minute) (P less than 0.0003). Mean plasma insulin concentrations increased during an oral glucose-tolerance test, from 1200 to 1770 pmol per liter (from 167 to 247 microU per milliliter). In 151 subjects with normal glucose tolerance, the insulin concentration measured during an oral glucose-tolerance test correlated with the plasma glucose concentration (r = 0.48, P less than or equal to 0.0001). This relation was used to predict an insulin concentration of 1550 pmol per liter (216 microU per milliliter) in subjects with impaired glucose tolerance (actual value, 1590 pmol per liter [222 microU per milliliter]; P not significant), suggesting that these subjects had normal secretion of insulin. In contrast, plasma insulin concentrations in the diabetics decreased as glucose concentrations increased (r = -0.75, P less than or equal to 0.0001), suggesting deficient secretion of insulin. This relative insulin deficiency first appears at the lower end of the second (diabetic) mode seen in population frequency distributions of plasma glucose concentrations. Our data show that impaired glucose tolerance in our study population is primarily due to impaired insulin action. In patients with non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus, by contrast, impaired insulin action and insulin secretory failure are both present.