Fatty acid composition of the diet may be essential to the development of breast cancer. We studied the ability of several fatty acids of serum total lipids to predict breast cancer incidence in a case-control study nested within a longitudinal population study. The proportions of fatty acids in serum total lipids were determined from stored serum samples collected at baseline for 127 incident breast cancer cases and 242 matched controls. Women with a higher proportion of total polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) in serum had a reduced risk of breast cancer. The odds ratio (OR) between the highest and lowest tertiles of serum PUFA was 0.31 (95% confidence interval, CI = 0.12-0.77). This association was mainly due to n-6 PUFAs and especially to linoleic acid. The ORs were 0.35 (CI = 0.14-0.84) and 0.29 (CI = 0.12-0.73), respectively. Of the monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs), higher trans-11-18:1 levels were related to an increased breast cancer risk (OR = 3.69, CI = 1.35-10.06). The association was stronger in postmenopausal than in premenopausal women. The present study suggests that higher serum proportions of the n-6 PUFA linoleic acid and lower proportions of the MUFA trans-11-18:1 fatty acid predict a reduced incidence of breast cancer.