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Recently, dietary pattern analysis has emerged as an alternative and complementary approach to examining the relationship between diet and the risk of chronic diseases. Instead of looking at individual nutrients or foods, pattern analysis examines the effects of overall diet. Conceptually, dietary patterns represent a broader picture of food and nutrient consumption, and may thus be more predictive of disease risk than individual foods or nutrients. Several studies have suggested that dietary patterns derived from factor or cluster analysis predict disease risk or mortality. In addition, there is growing interest in using dietary quality indices to evaluate whether adherence to a certain dietary pattern (e.g. Mediterranean pattern) or current dietary guidelines lowers the risk of disease. In this review, we describe the rationale for studying dietary patterns, and discuss quantitative methods for analysing dietary patterns and their reproducibility and validity, and the available evidence regarding the relationship between major dietary patterns and the risk of cardiovascular disease.