There is increasing evidence to indicate that nutrition is an important factor involved in the onset and development of several chronic human diseases including cancer, cardiovascular disease (CVD), type II diabetes and obesity. Clinical studies implicate excessive consumption of medium-chain saturated fatty acids (SFA) and trans-fatty acids (TFA) as risk factors for CVD, and in the aetiology of other chronic conditions. Ruminant-derived foods are significant sources of medium-chain SFA and TFA in the human diet, but also provide high-quality protein, essential micronutrients and several bioactive lipids. Altering the fatty acid composition of ruminant-derived foods offers the opportunity to align the consumption of fatty acids in human populations with public health policies without the need for substantial changes in eating habits. Replacing conserved forages with fresh grass or dietary plant oil and oilseed supplements can be used to lower medium-chain and total SFA content and increase cis-9 18:1, total conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), n-3 and n-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) to a variable extent in ruminant milk. However, inclusion of fish oil or marine algae in the ruminant diet results in marginal enrichment of 20- or 22-carbon PUFA in milk. Studies in growing ruminants have confirmed that the same nutritional strategies improve the balance of n-6/n-3 PUFA, and increase CLA and long-chain n-3 PUFA in ruminant meat, but the potential to lower medium-chain and total SFA is limited. Attempts to alter meat and milk fatty acid composition through changes in the diet fed to ruminants are often accompanied by several-fold increases in TFA concentrations. In extreme cases, the distribution of trans 18:1 and 18:2 isomers in ruminant foods may resemble that of partially hydrogenated plant oils. Changes in milk fat or muscle lipid composition in response to diet are now known to be accompanied by tissue-specific alterations in the expression of one or more lipogenic genes. Breed influences both milk and muscle fat content, although recent studies have confirmed the occurrence of genetic variability in transcript abundance and activity of enzymes involved in lipid synthesis and identified polymorphisms for several key lipogenic genes in lactating and growing cattle. Although nutrition is the major factor influencing the fatty acid composition of ruminant-derived foods, further progress can be expected through the use of genomic or marker-assisted selection to increase the frequency of favourable genotypes and the formulation of diets to exploit this genetic potential.