The French National Programme on Nutrition and Health (Programme national nutrition santé (PNNS)), the aim of which is to reduce nutrition-related chronic diseases, necessitates monitoring of nutritional characteristics. Our objective was to describe dietary intake, physical activity and nutritional status in a national sample of adults, especially according to current French recommendations. The study is based on a cross-sectional population-based survey using a multistage sampling design (Etude nationale nutrition santé (ENNS)). Between February 2006 and March 2007, 3115 18–74-year-old adults were included (participation rate 59·7 %). Energy, macronutrient and food consumption were estimated through three randomly distributed 24 h recalls, and compared to PNNS recommendations; physical activity was described using International Physical Activity Questionnaire guidelines; anthropometry, blood pressure and biochemical measurements were assessed according to national and international references. When compared to current recommendations, intake of carbohydrates (>50 % energy intake without alcohol: 26·4 %), SFA ( < 35 % total lipids: 18·5 %) and total fibre (>25 g/d: 13·7 %) was frequently unsatisfactory. While overall consumption of ‘meat, seafood and eggs’ was satisfactory, that of fruits and vegetables ( ≥ 400 g/d: 43·8 %) and seafood (two or more servings per week: 29·9 %) was frequently too low. The physical activity level was satisfactory at 63·2 %. Overweight was observed in 49·3 % of adults, while 30·9 % were hypertensive and 44·1 % had dyslipidaemia. Vitamin and iron-poor status was found to affect less than 10 % of the population. Based on the ENNS survey, overall nutrition remains a problem in France. Comparison of these data with those of other countries could contribute to a better understanding of variations in nutrition-related diseases.