Recently, the presence of small dense low density lipoprotein (LDL) has been postulated to be a stronger risk factor for coronary heart disease than large LDL. While small dense LDL has been associated with individual components of the insulin resistance syndrome such as hypertension, high triglyceride level, low high density (HDL) cholesterol, and diabetes mellitus, there has been little work exploring whether LDL size is decreased in subjects with multiple metabolic disorders. We examined the association of LDL size and pattern to specific insulin (which does not cross-react with proinsulin), proinsulin, increased triglyceride, decreased HDL, hypertension and impaired glucose tolerance in 488 non-diabetic subjects from the San Antonio Heart Study. LDL size was significantly related to specific insulin, proinsulin and the fasting proinsulin/insulin ratio. Small dense LDL was significantly associated with high triglyceride level, decreased HDL cholesterol, hypertension and impaired glucose tolerance. LDL size (A) decreased in a stepwise fashion with increasing number of the metabolic disorders described above (zero 262.6 +/- 9.4; one 257.0 +/- 9.3; two 256.4 +/- 9.4; three 249.0 +/- 9.1; and four 244.9 +/- 9.0). These results were similar in men and women and in non-Hispanic whites and Mexican Americans. The association between LDL size and the number of metabolic disorders remained statistically significant even after adjustment for obesity, body fat distribution, gender, ethnicity, proinsulin and insulin concentrations. Furthermore, decreases in LDL size are also significantly associated with both a selective beta-cell defect (as estimated by the fasting proinsulin/insulin ratio) and insulin resistance (as estimated by the fasting insulin concentrations) although the association was somewhat stronger for the latter. We conclude that small dense LDL may form part of the insulin resistance syndrome in non-diabetic subjects.