Routine surveillance data underestimate incidence of foodborne gastrointestinal (FGI) illness and provide little information on illness related to travel. We analysed data from the Welsh Health Survey to estimate population incidence, and to examine risk factors for FGI and factors associated with consulting a doctor. Reported frequency of any FGI in the 3 months before interview was 20·0% [95% confidence interval (CI) 19·5–20.4; equivalent to 0·8 episodes per person-year], and for travel-related FGI was 1·6% (95% CI 1·5–1·8). In the final model, sex, age group, marital status, self-reported health, long-term illness, smoking and alcohol consumption were all independent predictors of FGI. People who consulted a doctor were likely to be older, in poorer health, taking regular medication, or to report mental illness. FGI is common but risk factors for illness and consultation differ and impressions of the epidemiology of the disease based on surveillance data are therefore distorted.