The utility of orthodentine microwear analysis as a proxy for dietary reconstruction in xenarthrans (tree sloths, armadillos) was quantitatively and statistically accessed via low-magnification stereomicroscopy. Features such as number of scratches and pits, as well as presence of gouges, hypercoarse scratches, > four large pits, > four cross scratches, and fine, mixed or coarse scratch texture were recorded in 255 teeth from 20 extant xenarthran species. Feature patterns are consistent with scar formation through abrasional (tooth–food) and attritional (tooth–tooth) contact. Number of scratches is the most dietary diagnostic microwear variable for xenarthrans, with herbivorous sloths characterized by > ten scratches and nonherbivorous armadillos by < ten scratches. Discriminant function analysis differentiated arboreal folivores (sloths) and frugivore-folivores (sloths) both from each other and from fossorial carnivore-omnivores (armadillos) and insectivores (armadillos). Microwear patterns in carnivore-omnivores and insectivores are difficult to distinguish between; armadillo microwear may reflect a fossorial lifestyle (grit consumption) rather than primary diet. Cabassous centralis is anomalous in its microwear signal relative to all other insectivores. To test the utility of orthodentine microwear analysis as an indicator of palaeodiet in extinct xenarthrans, microwear in the ground sloth Nothrotheriops shastensis was quantitatively and statistically compared to microwear in extant taxa. Microwear patterns in N. shastensis are most comparable to extant folivores based on scratch number and hierarchical cluster analysis. This strongly supports an herbivorous diet for N. shastensis that is corroborated by multiple independent lines of evidence. Thus, orthodentine microwear analysis can be used to reconstruct diet in extinct xenarthrans. © 2009 The Linnean Society of London, Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2009, 156, 201–222.