Although an increased plasma non-esterified fatty acid (NEFA) concentration has been shown to increase insulin resistance (Randle cycle), decrease insulin secretion and increase hepatic gluconeogenesis, the effect of NEFA on the deterioration of glucose tolerance has not been studied prospectively in Caucasian subjects. Therefore, we investigated whether plasma NEFA may be regarded as predictors of deterioration of glucose tolerance in subjects with normal (NGT, n = 3671) or impaired (IGT, n = 418) glucose tolerance who were participants in the Paris Prospective study. The subjects were first examined between 1967 and 1972 and underwent two 75-g oral glucose tolerance tests 2 years apart with measurements of plasma glucose, insulin and NEFA concentrations. Glucose tolerance deteriorated from NGT to IGT or non-insulin-dependent diabetes (NIDDM) in 177 subjects and from IGT to NIDDM in 32 subjects. In multivariate analysis, high fasting plasma NEFA in NGT subjects and high 2-h plasma NEFA and low 2-h plasma insulin concentrations in IGT subjects were significant independent predictors of deterioration along with older age, high fasting and 2-h plasma glucose concentrations and high iliac to thigh ratio. When subjects were divided by tertiles of plasma NEFA concentration at baseline, there was an increase in 2-h glucose concentration with increasing NEFA in the subjects who did not deteriorate, but no effect of plasma NEFA in those who deteriorated. In subjects with IGT who deteriorated compared with those who did not 2-h plasma insulin concentration was lower but there was no evidence that this resulted from an effect of plasma NEFA. Our data suggest that a high plasma NEFA concentration is a risk marker for deterioration of glucose tolerance independent of the insulin resistance or the insulin secretion defect that characterize subjects at risk for NIDDM.