Abstract A case-control study of oral cancer was conducted in Beijing, People's Republic of China to examine the association between dietary nutrient intake and risk of oral cancer, both in terms of estimated intake of nutrients and micro-nutrients, and in terms of specific foods and food groups. The study was hospital-based and controls were hospital in-patients matched for age and sex with the cases. The response rate for cases and controls was 100% and 404 case/control pairs were interviewed. The results suggest that increased protein and fat intake are related to a decreased risk of oral cancer. Carbohydrate intake, however, showed a moderate increased risk for oral cancer. Total carotene intake and carotene intake from fruits and vegetables are inversely associated with risk of oral cancer. A similar pattern was observed for dietary vitamin C intake. Dietary fibre derived from fruits and vegetables showed a strong negative association with oral cancer risk, but fibre derived from other sources did not exhibit any protective effect. At the level of foods and food groups, increased consumption of fresh meat, chicken and liver was significantly associated with a reduction in oral cancer risk: the tests for trend were all statistically significant at the P < 0.01 level. Consumption of common carp, hairtail, shrimp and lobster were also associated with decreased risk. Risk was found to increase with increasing consumption of millet and corn bread ( P < 0.01) but to decrease with increasing consumption of rice ( P < 0.01). Increased consumption of grapes, bananas, oranges, tangerines, peaches and pears were associated with reduced risk. No association was found with intake of tea or the reported temperature at which it was consumed. These results support the independent role of dietary nutrients in oral cancer.