Associations between atherosclerosis and dietary fat and cholesterol have been demonstrated in numerous animal experiments. The relation between these dietary components and atherosclerosis has not previously been reported in a population-based study among human beings. The associations of dietary fat and cholesterol with carotid artery wall thickness (atherosclerosis) were investigated in a population-based study, the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) Study, from 1987 to 1989. Participants were 2,095 black women, 5,146 white women, 1,318 black men and 4,589 white men, aged 45-64 years, recruited from four US communities: Jackson, Mississippi; Forsyth County, North Carolina; Washington County, Maryland; and Minneapolis, Minnesota. Habitual diet was assessed with a food frequency questionnaire. Wall thickness was measured with B-mode ultrasound. After adjustment for age and energy intake, animal fat, saturated fat, monounsaturated fat, cholesterol, and Keys' score were positively related to wall thickness, while vegetable fat and polyunsaturated fat were inversely related to wall thickness. These associations persisted after further adjustment for smoking and hypertension and were consistent across the four race and sex groups. Thus, elements of habitual dietary intake were consistently associated with carotid artery wall thickness, compatible with their putatively atherogenic and antiatherogenic properties.