To identify and characterise dietary patterns in a middle-aged Irish population sample and study associations between these patterns, sociodemographic and anthropometric variables and major risk factors for cardiovascular disease.A cross-sectional study.A group of 1473 men and women were sampled from 17 general practice lists in the South of Ireland. A total of 1018 attended for screening, with a response rate of 69%. Participants completed a detailed health and lifestyle questionnaire and provided a fasting blood sample for glucose, lipids and homocysteine. Dietary intake was assessed using a standard food-frequency questionnaire adapted for use in the Irish population. The food-frequency questionnaire was a modification of that used in the UK arm of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer study, which was based on that used in the US Nurses' Health Study. Dietary patterns were assessed primarily by K-means cluster analysis, following initial principal components analysis to identify the seeds.Three dietary patterns were identified. These clusters corresponded to a traditional Irish diet, a prudent diet and a diet characterised by high consumption of alcoholic drinks and convenience foods. Cluster 1 (Traditional Diet) had the highest intakes of saturated fat (SFA), monounsaturated fat (MUFA) and percentage of total energy from fat, and the lowest polyunsaturated fat (PUFA) intake and ratio of polyunsaturated to saturated fat (P:S). Cluster 2 (Prudent Diet) was characterised by significantly higher intakes of fibre, PUFA, P:S ratio and antioxidant vitamins (vitamins C and E), and lower intakes of total fat, MUFA, SFA and cholesterol. Cluster 3 (Alcohol & Convenience Foods) had the highest intakes of alcohol, protein, cholesterol, vitamin B(12), vitamin B(6), folate, iron, phosphorus, selenium and zinc, and the lowest intakes of PUFA, vitamin A and antioxidant vitamins (vitamins C and E). There were significant differences between clusters in gender distribution, smoking status, physical activity, body mass index, waist circumference and serum homocysteine concentrations.In this general population sample, cluster analysis methods yielded two major dietary patterns: prudent and traditional. The prudent dietary pattern is associated with other health-seeking behaviours. Study of dietary patterns will help elucidate links between diet and disease and contribute to the development of healthy eating guidelines for health promotion.