Obesity affects one in three American adult women and is associated with overall mortality and major morbidities. A composite diet index to evaluate total diet quality may better assess the complex relationship between diet and obesity, providing insights for nutrition interventions. The purpose of the present investigation was to determine whether diet quality, defined according to the previously validated Framingham nutritional risk score (FNRS), was associated with the development of overweight or obesity in women. Over 16 years, we followed 590 normal-weight women (BMI < 25 kg/m2), aged 25 to 71 years, of the Framingham Offspring and Spouse Study who presented without CVD, cancer or diabetes at baseline. The nineteen-nutrient FNRS derived from mean ranks of nutrient intakes from 3 d dietary records was used to assess nutritional risk. The outcome was development of overweight or obesity (BMI ≥ 25 kg/m2) during follow-up. In a stepwise multiple logistic regression model adjusted for age, physical activity and smoking status, the FNRS was directly related to overweight or obesity (P for trend = 0·009). Women with lower diet quality (i.e. higher nutritional risk scores) were significantly more likely to become overweight or obese (OR 1·76; 95 % CI 1·16, 2·69) compared with those with higher diet quality. Diet quality, assessed using a comprehensive composite nutritional risk score, predicted development of overweight or obesity. This finding suggests that overall diet quality be considered a key component in planning and implementing programmes for obesity risk reduction and treatment recommendations.