Objective The main aim of the present study was to identify food consumption in Sri Lankan adults based on serving characteristics. Design Cross-sectional study. Fruits, vegetables, starch, meat, pulses, dairy products and added sugars in the diet were assessed with portion sizes estimated using standard methods. Setting Twelve randomly selected clusters from the Sri Lanka Diabetes and Cardiovascular Study. Subjects Six hundred non-institutionalized adults. Results The daily intake of fruit (0·43), vegetable (1·73) and dairy (0·39) portions were well below national recommendations. Only 3·5 % of adults consumed the recommended 5 portions of fruits and vegetables/d; over a third of the population consumed no dairy products and fewer than 1 % of adults consumed 2 portions/d. In contrast, Sri Lankan adults consumed over 14 portions of starch and 3·5 portions of added sugars daily. Almost 70 % of those studied exceeded the upper limit of the recommendations for starch intake. The total daily number of meat and pulse portions was 2·78. Conclusions Dietary guidelines emphasize the importance of a balanced and varied diet; however, a substantial proportion of the Sri Lankan population studied failed to achieve such a recommendation. Nutrition-related diseases in the country may be closely correlated with unhealthy eating habits.