The considerable variation in shape, size, structure and properties of the enamel cap covering mammalian teeth is a topic of great evolutionary interest. No existing theories explain how such variations might be fit for the purpose of breaking food particles down. Borrowing from engineering materials science, we use principles of fracture and deformation of solids to provide a quantitative account of how mammalian enamel may be adapted to diet. Particular attention is paid to mammals that feed on ‘hard objects’ such as seeds and dry fruits, the outer casings of which appear to have evolved structures with properties similar to those of enamel. These foods are important in the diets of some primates, and have been heavily implicated as a key factor in the evolutionary history of the hominin clade. As a tissue with intrinsic weakness yet exceptional durability, enamel could be especially useful as a dietary indicator for extinct taxa. BioEssays 30:374–385, 2008. © 2008 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.