To determine differences between peripheral blood mononuclear cells and the plasma metabolites in patients with impaired fasting glucose or type 2 diabetes and healthy controls. In all, 65 nononobese patients (aged 30–70 years) with impaired fasting glucose or type 2 diabetes and 65 nonobese sex-matched healthy controls were included, and fasting peripheral blood mononuclear cell and plasma metabolomes were profiled. The diabetic or impaired fasting glucose patients showed higher circulating and peripheral blood mononuclear cell lipoprotein phospholipase A2 activities, high-sensitivity C-reactive protein and tumour necrosis factor-α than controls. Compared with controls, impaired fasting glucose or diabetic subjects showed increases in 11 peripheral blood mononuclear cell metabolites: six amino acids (valine, leucine, methionine, phenylalanine, tyrosine and tryptophan), L-pyroglutamic acid, two fatty acid amides containing palmitic amide and oleamide and two lysophosphatidylcholines. In impaired fasting glucose or diabetic patients, peripheral blood mononuclear cell lipoprotein phospholipase A2 positively associated with peripheral blood mononuclear cell lysophosphatidylcholines and circulating inflammatory markers, including tumour necrosis factor-α, high-sensitivity C-reactive protein and lipoprotein phospholipase A2 activities. In plasma metabolites between patients and healthy controls, we observed significant increases in only three amino acids (proline, valine and leucine) and decreases in only five lysophosphatidylcholines. This study demonstrates significant differences in the peripheral blood mononuclear cell metabolome in patients with impaired fasting glucose or diabetes compared with healthy controls. These differences were greater than those observed in the plasma metabolome. These data suggest peripheral blood mononuclear cells as a useful tool to better understand the inflammatory pathophysiology of diabetes.