The extent to which the oral glucose tolerance test can be used to estimate insulin secretion and insulin resistance has been evaluated by comparing glucose and insulin concentrations during an oral glucose tolerance test with specific measurements of insulin secretion and insulin resistance in 85 normoglycaemic subjects and 23 subjects with impaired glucose tolerance (IGT). Insulin secretion was measured by the first phase insulin response to intravenous glucose and insulin resistance by the insulin tolerance test which measures the decline of plasma glucose after the injection of a bolus of insulin. The best measure of insulin secretion was the ratio of the 30 min increment in insulin concentration to the 30 min increment in glucose concentration following oral glucose loading. This correlated with the first phase insulin release following intravenous glucose (r = 0.61, p < 0.001) but not insulin resistance (r = -0.05, p > 0.05). Insulin resistance could be estimated by the fasting insulin, proinsulin, or split proinsulin concentrations. However, fasting split proinsulin appeared to discriminate best between insulin resistance (r = -0.53, p < 0.001) and insulin secretion (r = 0.07, p > 0.05). Relative insulin resistance estimated by homeostasis model assessment (HOMA) also correlated well with insulin resistance (r = -0.57, p < 0.001) but not insulin secretion (r = 0.01, p > 0.05). We conclude that the oral glucose tolerance test can be used to derive estimates of the relative roles of insulin secretion and insulin resistance in population studies of glucose tolerance.