Researches have suggested Mediterranean diet might lower the risk of chronic diseases, but data on skeletal muscle mass (SMM) are limited. This community-based cross-sectional study examined the association between the alternate Mediterranean diet score (aMDS) and SMM in 2230 females and 1059 males aged 40–75 years in Guangzhou, China. General information and habitual dietary information were assessed in face-to-face interviews conducted during 2008–2010 and 3 years later. The aMDS was calculated by summing the dichotomous points for the items of higher intakes of whole grain, vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, fish and ratio of MUFA:SFA, lower red meat and moderate ethanol consumption. The SMM of the whole body, limbs, arms and legs were measured using dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry during 2011–2013. After adjusting for potential covariates, higher aMDS was positively associated with skeletal muscle mass index (SMI, SMM/height2, kg/m2) at all of the studied sites in males (all Ptrend<0·05). The multiple covariate-adjusted SMI means were 2·70 % (whole body), 2·65 % (limbs), 2·50 % (arms) and 2·70 % (legs) higher in the high (v. low) category aMDS in males (all P<0·05). In females, the corresponding values were 1·35 % (Ptrend=0·03), 1·05, 0·52 and 1·20 %, (Ptrend>0·05). Age-stratified analyses showed that the favourable associations tended to be more pronounced in the younger subjects aged less than the medians of 59·2 and 62·2 years in females and males (Pinteraction>0·10). In conclusion, the aMDS shows protective associations with SMM in Chinese adults, particularly in male and younger subjects.