Data are limited on how dietary sources of energy and nutrient intakes differ among ethnic groups in the USA. The objective of the present study was to characterise dietary sources of energy, total fat, saturated fat, protein, dietary fibre and added sugar for five ethnic groups. A validated quantitative FFQ was used to collect dietary data from 186 916 men and women aged 45–75 years who were living in Hawaii and Los Angeles between 1993 and 1996. Participants represented five ethnic groups: African-American; Japanese-American; Native Hawaiian; Latino; Caucasian. The top ten dietary sources of energy contributed 36·2–49·6 % to total energy consumption, with rice and bread contributing the most (11·4–27·8 %) across all ethnic–sex groups. Major dietary sources of total fat were chicken/turkey dishes and butter among most groups. Ice cream, ice milk or frozen yogurt contributed 4·6–6·2 % to saturated fat intake across all ethnic–sex groups, except Latino-Mexico women. Chicken/turkey and bread were among the top dietary sources of protein (13·9–19·4 %). The top two sources of dietary fibre were bread and cereals (18·1–22 %) among all groups, except Latino-Mexico men. Regular sodas contributed the most to added sugar consumption. The present study provides, for the first time, data on the major dietary sources of energy, fat, saturated fat, protein, fibre and added sugar for these five ethnic groups in the USA. Such data are valuable for identifying target foods for nutritional intervention programmes and directing public health strategies aimed at reducing dietary risk factors for chronic disease.