The population of North Karelia, a county in Finland, has a high rate of coronary heart disease. It also has a high prevalence of hypercholesterolemia, but whether this reflects a diet rich in animal fats or is a result of genetic factors is unclear. We studied the effect on serum lipoproteins of a low-fat diet with a high ratio of polyunsaturated to saturated fatty acids in 54 middle-aged volunteers in North Karelia. Total serum cholesterol decreased, from 263 +/- 8 mg per deciliter (mean +/- S.E.) to 201 +/- 5 mg in men (P less than 0.0001) and from 239 +/- 8 to 188 +/- 8 mg in women (P less than 0.0001), along with low-density-lipoprotein cholesterol and apoprotein B. High-density lipoprotein decreased from 54 +/- 2 mg per deciliter to 44 +/- 2 in men (P less than 0.0001) and from 56 +/- 3 to 47 +/- 2 mg in women (P less than 0.0001). A small but significant reduction occurred in serum apoprotein A-I, whereas apoprotein A-II increased slightly. The individual changes in low-density-lipoprotein cholesterol correlated with those in high-density-lipoprotein cholesterol. The changes in serum lipids and apoproteins were reversed when the participants returned to their original diets. Our results suggest that the hypercholesterolemia characteristic of this population is due at least in part to dietary factors.