With the diabetes epidemic reaching menacing proportions worldwide, there is an urgent need for the development of cost-efficient prevention strategies to be effective at the population level. Great potential in this direction lies in properly designed, large-scale dietary interventions. The macronutrient composition and the caloric content of our diet are major determinants of glucose homeostasis and there is a continuously growing list of foods, nutrients or individual compounds that have been associated with an increased or reduced incidence of diabetes mellitus. These include fat, carbohydrates, fibre, alcohol, polyphenols and other micronutrients or individual dietary compounds, which have been shown to either promote or prevent a progression towards a (pre-)diabetic state. This review aims to briefly summarize relevant epidemiological data linking foods to diabetes and to provide insights into the mechanisms through which these effects are mediated. These include improvement of insulin sensitivity or promotion of insulin resistance, regulation of inflammatory pathways, regulation of glucose transport and tissue glucose uptake, aggravation or attenuation of postprandial glycaemia/insulinaemia, interactions with hormonal responses and β-cell-dependent mechanisms. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.