Studies on the role of diet in the development of chronic diseases often rely on self-report surveys of dietary intake. Unfortunately, many validity studies have demonstrated that self-reported dietary intake is subject to systematic under-reporting, although the vast majority of such studies have been conducted in industrialised countries. The aim of the present study was to investigate whether or not systematic reporting error exists among the individuals of African ancestry (n 324) in five countries distributed across the Human Development Index (HDI) scale, a UN statistic devised to rank countries on non-income factors plus economic indicators. Using two 24 h dietary recalls to assess energy intake and the doubly labelled water method to assess total energy expenditure, we calculated the difference between these two values ((self-report − expenditure/expenditure) × 100) to identify under-reporting of habitual energy intake in selected communities in Ghana, South Africa, Seychelles, Jamaica and the USA. Under-reporting of habitual energy intake was observed in all the five countries. The South African cohort exhibited the highest mean under-reporting ( − 52·1 % of energy) compared with the cohorts of Ghana ( − 22·5 %), Jamaica ( − 17·9 %), Seychelles ( − 25·0 %) and the USA ( − 18·5 %). BMI was the most consistent predictor of under-reporting compared with other predictors. In conclusion, there is substantial under-reporting of dietary energy intake in populations across the whole range of the HDI, and this systematic reporting error increases according to the BMI of an individual.