Abstract Regular consumption of fruits, vegetables and cereals moderates development of coronary heart disease and atherosclerosis in humans, possibly as a result of antioxidants present in these foods. The aim of this study was to develop a hamster model sufficiently sensitive to test the effects of nutritional rather than pharmacological amounts of food components on the development of atherosclerosis. The effect of vitamin E on aortic lipid deposition was investigated in hamsters fed a hypercholesterolemic diet containing per kilogram 2 g cholesterol, 90 g butterfat, 35 g vitamin E-stripped corn oil, 25 g fish oil and either the minimum requirement of 3 international units (IU) vitamin E or 30 IU. After 30 weeks, lipoprotein cholesterol fractions did not differ between groups, and the 6:1 LDL-cholesterol : HDL-cholesterol ratio was atherogenic. Early atherosclerosis was measured by lipid staining of aortic arch sections with oil red O and quantified by a photomicroscopy color-scanning technique. The area of lipid deposits in the 30 IU vitamin E group (7.9 ± 1.3%, mean ± SEM) was 58% less than in the 3 IU vitamin E group (18.7 ± 4.4%, p < 0.03). Hamsters fed a mixture of saturated and n-6 and n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids plus cholesterol became hypercholesterolemic and were sensitive to vitamin E with respect to development of atherosclerosis. This model provides a tool to test atheroprotective effects of individual food components in vivo.