Cross-sectional studies report an inverse association between BMI and serum carotenoid concentration. The present study examined the prospective association between BMI and the serum concentration of five carotenoids in the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study. Serum carotenoids (alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, beta-cryptoxanthin, zeaxanthin/lutein, lycopene), BMI, dietary intake, physical activity and dietary supplement use were measured at years 0 and 7 in 3071 black and white male and female participants, who were either persistent smokers or non-smokers. Among non-smokers, year 0 BMI predicted year 7 serum carotenoid levels: obese subjects (BMI > or =30 kg/m2) had an average concentration of the sum of four carotenoids (alpha-carotene +beta-carotene + zeaxanthin/lutein+beta-cryptoxanthin) that was 22 % lower than the concentration among subjects with a BMI of less than 22 kg/m2. In contrast, the sum of carotenoids among smokers was only 6 % lower. Relationships between BMI and serum lycopene were weak. The change from year 0 to year 7 in serum carotenoids, except for lycopene, was inversely associated with the change in BMI among non-smokers but not among smokers. Parallel findings were observed for BMI and serum gamma-glutamyl transferase level. In summary, the observation that BMI predicted the evolution of serum carotenoids during a 7-year follow-up among young non-smoking adults is consistent with the hypothesis that carotenoids are decreased in protecting against oxidative stress generated by adipose tissue, while smokers maintain a minimal level of serum carotenoids independent of adiposity. The results for lycopene were, however, discordant from those of the other carotenoids.