To assess cross-cultural relations between dietary intake and plasma lipoproteins, we randomly selected 222 men and 243 women from the urban and rural areas of Puriscal, Costa Rica; related their dietary composition (assessed by a food-frequency questionnaire), fitness level, and body fat to plasma lipids, apolipoproteins, and low density lipoprotein (LDL) particle size; and compared these data with those from a subsample of 280 adults from the Framingham Offspring Study. Total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels were significantly (p less than 0.0001) higher in Framingham (207 and 137 mg/dl, respectively) than in Puriscal (184 and 114 mg/dl, respectively) residents. Elevated triglyceride and apolipoprotein (apo) B levels (25% and 16% higher), low HDL cholesterol and apo A-I levels (12% and 29% lower), and smaller LDL particles (17%) were more frequent in Puriscal than in Framingham residents. Urban Puriscal residents had a significantly lower fitness level; increased body fat, total cholesterol, and triglyceride levels; decreased HDL cholesterol in men; and higher apo B levels in women compared with rural Puriscal residents. Body fat, animal fat, and saturated fat intakes were significantly correlated with total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and apo B levels in both men and women in Puriscal. Intakes of protein and animal fat were higher among urban (10.7% and 14.1%, respectively) compared with rural (8.9% and 9.9%, respectively) Puriscal residents and in Framingham (16.0% and 20.8%, respectively) compared with Puriscal residents. No significant differences were found in dietary cholesterol. Saturated fat (largely from palm oil in Puriscal) intakes were significantly different among the three groups: rural Puriscal, 10.7% of calories; urban Puriscal, 11.6%; and Framingham residents, 12.9%. These data indicate that the more atherogenic plasma lipid profile among urban compared with Puriscal residents was largely explained by increased adiposity, decreased fitness level, and higher saturated fatty acid intake. Puriscal residents consumed less animal fat and more carbohydrate than did Framingham residents, and these differences were associated with a 21% lower LDL cholesterol level, a 12% lower HDL cholesterol level, a 29% lower apo A-I level, a 25% higher triglyceride level, a 16% higher apo B level, and a 17% smaller LDL particle size. Some of these cross-cultural differences may be due to differences in ethnic background and physical activity as well.