The availabilities of nutrients from a representative rural Mexican diet (RMD) and a representative urban Mexican diet (UMD) were evaluated by balance experiments in sixteen Mexican women. Compared with UMD, the plant-based RMD led to a higher number of defaecations and higher faecal excretion of dry matter, fat, nitrogen and energy. Apparent digestibility of N from RMD was only 67% compared with 90% from UMD. N balance was 0.4 and 2.6 g/d with RMD and UMD respectively (P < 0.001). Apparent digestibility of energy was 89 and 95% from RMD and UMD respectively (P < 0.001). Calculation of the metabolizable energy (ME) using Atwater's (Atwater & Bryant, 1900) general factors overestimates the determined ME in RMD by 8%. The Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organization/United Nations University (World Health Organization, 1985) recommended factors for correction of digestibility of fibre intake overestimate energy and protein absorption from RMD. The diets provided similar amounts of zinc, and its apparent absorption from RMD was 0.5 mg/d (4.6%) and its balance was 0.1 mg/d. This compared with values for UMD of 1.6 mg/d (16%) and 1.2 mg/d respectively. Iron intake was higher from RMD (17.4 v. 11.6 mg/d; P < 0.01), but apparent absorption was 17 v. 35% and balance was 2.7 and 3.8 mg/d (P < 0.001) for RMD and UMD respectively. RMD also contained more calcium (745 v. 410 mg/d) but apparent absorption from RMD was negative (−136 v. 15 mg/d) and balance was more negative (−197 v.−77 mg/d; P < 0.05). Thus, the content of these minerals is not low in the rural diet but their bioavailabilities are poor.