The association between food groupings and adenocarcinoma of the colon was investigated in a population-based case-control study of men and women ages 30-62 years. Colon cancer cases (238 men and 186 women) diagnosed from 1985 to 1989 were identified from the Seattle-Puget Sound Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Registry. Controls (224 men and 190 women) were selected using a random digit telephone dialing method. Dietary information was gathered using an 80-item food frequency questionnaire. Foods were grouped and analyzed by quartile of intake, with adjustment for age and total energy intake. Among women, a reduced risk of colon cancer was associated with a high intake of fruits and vegetables [adjusted odds ratio (OR) for highest versus lowest quartile, 0.48; 95% confidence interval (CI), 0.26-0.86; P for trend, P = 0.02]. Inverse associations were also observed for the consumption of total (hot and cold) cereals (OR, 0.47; 95% CI, 0.25-0.91; P = 0.05), dairy products (OR, 0.40; 95% CI, 0.21-0.79; P = 0.05), and water (OR for > 5 glasses/day versus < or = 2 glass/day, 0.55; 95% CI, 0.31-0.99; P = 0.004). Among men, colon cancer risk was inversely associated with the intake of breads and cereals (OR, 0.43; 95% CI, 0.22-0.82; P = 0.02) and hot cereal (OR for weekly versus never eating, 0.53; 95% CI, 0.32-0.87; P = 0.01). Water consumption was marginally associated with a decreased colon cancer risk among men as well (OR for > 4 glasses/day versus < or = 1 glass/day, 0.68; 95% CI, 0.38-1.22; P = 0.16). Total meat consumption was associated with an increased risk of distal colon cancer among men (OR, 2.20; 95% CI, 1.08-4.48; P = 0.01). These results were not confounded by body mass index or other measured health behaviors. Results of this research support previous findings which associate intake of fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy products with reduced colon cancer risk, and meat intake with an increased colon cancer risk. This study also reports a new finding of a possible inverse association of water consumption (glasses of plain water per day) with colon cancer risk.