An increase of low-density lipoprotein triglycerides (LDL-Tg) was found to be an independent coronary artery disease (CAD) risk factor for non-insulin-dependent diabetic (NIDDM) patients in a recent prospective study. We examined the composition and size of LDL particles in 50 NIDDM men with angiographically verified CAD (NIDDM+ CAD+) and in 50 NIDDM men without CAD (NIDDM(+)-CAD-) as compared to 50 non-diabetic men with CAD (NIDDM - CAD +) and 31 non-diabetic men without CAD (NIDDM-CAD-). The groups had similar ranges of age and BMI. LDL particle size was determined by gradient gel electrophoresis, and LDL was isolated by sequential ultracentrifugation for compositional analyses. Serum Tg was increased in NIDDM patients as compared to non-diabetic subjects (p < 0.05), and in patients with CAD as compared to subjects without the disease (p < 0.05). LDL cholesterol was lower in NIDDM patients than in non-diabetic subjects (p < 0.001). Mean diameter of LDL particles was less than 255 A, but closely comparable in all groups. The presence of NIDDM was associated with increases of Tg and protein but lowering of free cholesterol in LDL (p < 0.005 for all). In multivariate regression analyses neither NIDDM nor CAD were associated with LDL particle size, but serum Tg was the major determinant of LDL size in both NIDDM and non-diabetic subjects (p < 0.001). When the patients were divided into quartiles according to fasting serum Tg levels, the LDL particle size and free cholesterol content decreased, but Tg and protein contents of LDL particles increased from the lowest to the highest Tg quartile (analysis of variance p < 0.001 for all). When the subjects were categorized into two groups according to the median of VLDL-Tg (1.10 mmol/l) LDL size was associated with VLDL-Tg in the high but not in the low VLDL-Tg group. We conclude that in NIDDM patients with or without CAD serum Tg is the major determinant of the properties of LDL particles. The clinical implication is that in NIDDM serum Tg should be as low as possible to prevent atherogenic changes in LDL.