The relative roles of obesity, insulin resistance, insulin secretory dysfunction, and excess hepatic glucose production in the development of non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (NIDDM) are controversial. We conducted a prospective study to determine which of these factors predicted the development of the disease in a group of Pima Indians. A body-composition assessment, oral and intravenous glucose-tolerance tests, and a hyperinsulinemic--euglycemic clamp study were performed in 200 non-diabetic Pima Indians (87 women and 113 men; mean [+/- SD] age, 26 +/- 6 years). The subjects were followed yearly thereafter for an average of 5.3 years. Diabetes developed in 38 subjects during follow-up. Obesity, insulin resistance (independent of obesity), and low acute plasma insulin response to intravenous glucose (with the degree of obesity and insulin resistance taken into account) were predictors of NIDDM: The six-year cumulative incidence of NIDDM was 39 percent in persons with values below the median for both insulin action and acute insulin response, 27 percent in those with values below the median for insulin action but above that for acute insulin response, 13 percent in those with values above the median for insulin action and below that for acute insulin response, and 0 in those with values originally above the median for both characteristics. Insulin resistance is a major risk factor for the development of NIDDM: A low acute insulin response to glucose is an additional but weaker risk factor.