© 2015 The Authors. Socio-economic status (SES) has been associated with measures of diet quality; however, such measures have not directly captured overall eating practices in individuals. Based on the factor analysis of fifty-six food groups from FFQ, associations between patterns of food consumption and SES were examined in a nationwide sample of 17 062 black (34·6 %) and white participants (age >45 years) from the REasons for Geographic And Racial Differences in Stroke (REGARDS) study. Logistic regression models adjusted for age, sex, racial group and geographic region were used to examine adherence to five emergent dietary patterns (convenience, plant-based, sweets/fats, southern and alcohol/salads) according to four levels each of individual education, household income and community-level SES. Further models assessed adherence to these dietary patterns by racial group, and an overall model including both racial groups examined whether the relationships between SES and adherence to these dietary patterns differed among black and white participants. For all the three measures of SES, higher SES had been associated with greater adherence to plant-based and alcohol/salads patterns, but lower adherence to sweets/fats and southern patterns. Statistically significant differences between black and white participants were observed in the associations between household income and adherence to alcohol/salads, individual education and adherence to plant-based and sweets/fats, and community SES and adherence to convenience patterns. As adherence to dietary patterns has been shown to be associated with health outcomes in this population (e.g. stroke), the present study offers valuable insight into behavioural and environmental factors that may contribute to health disparities in the diverse US population.