A causal role in the pathogenesis of obesity has been proposed for hyperinsulinemia and insulin resistance in populations with a high prevalence of a "thrifty genotype." An alternative hypothesis is that obesity-induced hyperinsulinemia is an adaptation which, by increasing central nervous system insulin signaling (which suppresses food intake), confers resistance to weight gain. To characterize the relationship between the level of insulin secretion and the risk of weight gain, we examined whether any of three different measures of the level of insulin secretion (the area under the plasma insulin curve during both a meal tolerance test and an oral glucose tolerance test, and the acute insulin secretory response to iv glucose) was predictive of weight gain in a prospective study of 97 Pima Indians (64 males and 33 females) with normal glucose tolerance. During a mean (+/- SD) follow-up period of more than 3 yr (males, 3.58 +/- 1.46 yr; females, 3.02 +/- 1.73 yr), average weight increased 2.1 +/- 3.0%/yr in males and 3.5 +/- 3.6%/yr in females, reflecting a mean annual increase in body fat content of 6.9%/yr in both sexes. Insulin secretion was negatively associated with the rate of weight gain, whether assessed by the insulin response during the meal tolerance test (r = -0.35; P < 0.001), the oral glucose tolerance test (r = -0.30; P = 0.004), or the acute insulin secretory response to iv glucose (r = -0.28; P = 0.002). Moreover, the significance of the relationship between each measure of insulin secretion and weight gain persisted after controlling for differences in age, sex, initial body weight, and insulin sensitivity. Relatively reduced insulin secretion, therefore, is a significant and independent predictor of the tendency to gain weight and adiposity in Pima Indians. The presence of relative insulin resistance also conferred an independent reduction in the risk of weight gain in some regression analyses. We conclude that insulin resistance and hyperinsulinemia are unlikely to play a causal role in the development of obesity, and that relatively reduced insulin secretion is a marker of an increased risk of weight gain in this population. These conclusions support the hypothesis that the level of insulin secretion plays an important role in long term body weight regulation.