This guideline aims to provide an overview of the present knowledge on aspects of perioperative fasting with assessment of the quality of the evidence. A systematic search was conducted in electronic databases to identify trials published between 1950 and late 2009 concerned with preoperative fasting, early resumption of oral intake and the effects of oral carbohydrate mixtures on gastric emptying and postoperative recovery. One study on preoperative fasting which had not been included in previous reviews and a further 13 studies published since the most recent review were identified. The searches also identified 20 potentially relevant studies of oral carbohydrates and 53 on early resumption of oral intake. Publications were classified in terms of their evidence level, scientific validity and clinical relevance. The Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network scoring system for assessing level of evidence and grade of recommendations was used. The key recommendations are that adults and children should be encouraged to drink clear fluids up to 2 h before elective surgery (including caesarean section) and all but one member of the guidelines group consider that tea or coffee with milk added (up to about one fifth of the total volume) are still clear fluids. Solid food should be prohibited for 6 h before elective surgery in adults and children, although patients should not have their operation cancelled or delayed just because they are chewing gum, sucking a boiled sweet or smoking immediately prior to induction of anaesthesia. These recommendations also apply to patients with obesity, gastro-oesophageal reflux and diabetes and pregnant women not in labour. There is insufficient evidence to recommend the routine use of antacids, metoclopramide or H2-receptor antagonists before elective surgery in non-obstetric patients, but an H2-receptor antagonist should be given before elective caesarean section, with an intravenous H2-receptor antagonist given prior to emergency caesarean section, supplemented with 30 ml of 0.3 mol l(-1) sodium citrate if general anaesthesia is planned. Infants should be fed before elective surgery. Breast milk is safe up to 4 h and other milks up to 6 h. Thereafter, clear fluids should be given as in adults. The guidelines also consider the safety and possible benefits of preoperative carbohydrates and offer advice on the postoperative resumption of oral intake.