Abstract Among vertebrates, there is often a tight correlation between variation in cranial morphology and diet. Yet, the relationships between morphological characteristics and feeding performance are usually only inferred from biomechanical models. Here, we empirically test whether differences in body dimensions are correlated with bite performance and trophic ecology for a large number of turtle species. A comparative phylogenetic analysis indicates that turtles with carnivorous and durophagous diets are capable of biting harder than species with other diets. This pattern is consistent with the hypothesis that an evolutionary increase in bite performance has allowed certain turtles to consume harder or larger prey. Changes in carapace length tend to be associated with proportional changes in linear head dimensions (no shape change). However, maximum bite force tends to change in proportion to length cubed, rather than length squared, implying that changes in body size are associated with changes in the design of the jaw apparatus. After the effect of body size is accounted for in the analysis, only changes in head height are significantly correlated with changes in bite force. Additionally, our data suggest that the ability to bite hard might trade off with the ability to feed on fast agile prey. Rather than being the direct result of conflicting biomechanical or physiological demands for force and speed, this trade-off may be mediated through the constraints imposed by the need to retract the head into the shell for defensive purposes.