Seven dietary patterns were identified among control subjects in the Western New York Diet Study (1975-1986) by application of principal components analysis to data from a 95-item food frequency interview. The results of case-control analyses of colon cancer risk for these patterns are presented. Cases were matched with neighborhood controls on the bases of age and sex; 205 colon case-control male and 223 female pairs were obtained. The dietary patterns and intakes of energy, total fat, and dietary fiber were examined with logistic regression for their individual contributions to risk. In males, three of these dietary patterns were associated positively with fat and energy consumption; they elevated risk for colon cancer and accounted for more risk than did the specific nutrients. Control for energy and fat intakes allowed the protective influences of additional dietary patterns to be expressed. No patterns elevated risk in women; two patterns were protective for colon cancer. Controlling for energy and fat intake enhanced the protection afforded by one of these patterns but had no influence on that of the other. Measures of foods rather than single nutrients may be more inclusive of dietary exposures to risk as well as being related more directly to underlying health behaviors. Therefore they may be better able to account for risk in diseases with multiple causation.