Lions Panthera leo are generally thought to prey on medium to large ungulates. Knowledge of which species are actually preferred and which are avoided is lacking, however, as is an understanding of why such preference or avoidance may arise. An analysis of 32 studies over 48 different spatial locations or temporal periods throughout the distribution of the lion shows that it preferentially preys upon species within a weight range of 190–550 kg. The most preferred weight of lion prey is 350 kg. The mean mass of significantly preferred prey species is 290 kg and of all preferred species is 201 kg. Gemsbok, buffalo, wildebeest, giraffe and zebra are significantly preferred. Species outside the preferred weight range are generally avoided. Species within the preferred weight range that are not significantly preferred (such as roan, sable and eland) generally have features that reduce predation either morphologically (e.g. sable horns), ecologically (e.g. roan and sable occurring at low density), or behaviourally (e.g. the large herd size and increased vigilance of eland). Warthog are below the preferred weight range yet are taken in accordance with their availability and this is probably due to their sympatry with lion, their relatively slow evasion speed and their lower level of vigilance. Plots of prey preference against prey body mass follows a bell curve with a right skew that, we argue, is caused by collective hunting by lions of larger-bodied prey. Our methods can be used on all large predators and are likely to be useful in assessing competition in sympatric communities of predators, cooperative hunting and predicting predator diets. This will allow us to move beyond descriptive dietary studies to improve our predictive understanding of the mechanisms underlying predator–prey interactions.