Previous epidemiological studies have demonstrated relationships between individual nutrients and glucose intolerance and type 2 diabetes, but the association with the overall pattern of dietary intake has not previously been described. In order to characterize this association, 802 subjects aged 40–65 years were randomly selected from a population-based sampling frame and underwent a 75 g oral glucose-tolerance test. Principal component analysis was used to identify four dietary patterns explaining 31·7 % of the dietary variation in the study cohort. These dietary patterns were associated with other lifestyle factors including socio-economic group, smoking, alcohol intake and physical activity. Component 1 was characterized by a healthy balanced diet with a frequent intake of raw and salad vegetables, fruits in both summer and winter, fish, pasta and rice and low intake of fried foods, sausages, fried fish, and potatoes. This component was negatively correlated with central obesity, fasting plasma glucose, 120 min non-esterified fatty acid and triacylglycerol, and positively correlated with HDL-cholesterol. It therefore appears to be protective for the metabolic syndrome. Component 1 was negatively associated with the risk of having undiagnosed diabetes, and this association was independent of age, sex, smoking and obesity. The findings support the hypothesis that dietary patterns are associated with other lifestyle factors and with glucose intolerance and other features of the metabolic syndrome. The results provide further evidence for the recommendation of a healthy balanced diet as one of the main components of chronic disease prevention.