OBJECTIVES To assess how the dental status of older people's mouths affected their stated ability to eat common foods. DESIGN Cross sectional study. SUBJECTS Survey was part of the oral health component of the nationwide British National Diet and Nutrition Survey: people aged 65 years and older. Two separate representative samples aged 65 and over: a free-living and an institutional sample. 881 free-living and 275 institution subjects had a dental exam and were interviewed about ability to eat key foods. RESULTS Significant percentages of free-living people had difficulty or could not eat at least 4 of 16 foods, and about 1 in 5 dentate stated they had difficulty eating or could not eat raw carrots, apples, well-done steak or nuts. More of the edentate subjects stated that they had difficulty eating than the dentate. Perceived chewing ability increased with increasing numbers of natural teeth and pairs of opposing posterior teeth. Subjects reporting a sociodental impact were more likely to consider that they were unable to eat foods that required more chewing. Associations remained valid after correction for the effects of age, sex, social class and denture wearing status and region. Perceived dryness did not affect significantly the stated ease of eating most foods. There were more dietary restrictions reported by the institution sample. Some foods, such as nuts, apples and raw carrots could not be eaten easily by over half of edentate people in the institution sample. CONCLUSIONS The stated selection of foods are substantially affected by numbers of teeth and occluding pairs of posterior teeth and presence of full dentures in significant percentages of older people.