OBJECTIVE: To examine the association between pre-diagnostic circulating vitamin D concentration, dietary intake of vitamin D and calcium, and the risk of colorectal cancer in European populations. DESIGN: Nested case-control study. Setting The study was conducted within the EPIC study, a cohort of more than 520 000 participants from 10 western European countries. PARTICIPANTS: 1248 cases of incident colorectal cancer, which developed after enrolment into the cohort, were matched to 1248 controls MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES: Circulating vitamin D concentration (25-hydroxy-vitamin-D, 25-(OH)D) was measured by enzyme immunoassay. Dietary and lifestyle data were obtained from questionnaires. Incidence rate ratios and 95% confidence intervals for the risk of colorectal cancer by 25-(OH)D concentration and levels of dietary calcium and vitamin D intake were estimated from multivariate conditional logistic regression models, with adjustment for potential dietary and other confounders. RESULTS: 25-(OH)D concentration showed a strong inverse linear dose-response association with risk of colorectal cancer (P for trend <0.001). Compared with a pre-defined mid-level concentration of 25-(OH)D (50.0-75.0 nmol/l), lower levels were associated with higher colorectal cancer risk (<25.0 nmol/l: incidence rate ratio 1.32 (95% confidence interval 0.87 to 2.01); 25.0-49.9 nmol/l: 1.28 (1.05 to 1.56), and higher concentrations associated with lower risk (75.0-99.9 nmol/l: 0.88 (0.68 to 1.13); >or=100.0 nmol/l: 0.77 (0.56 to 1.06)). In analyses by quintile of 25-(OH)D concentration, patients in the highest quintile had a 40% lower risk of colorectal cancer than did those in the lowest quintile (P<0.001). Subgroup analyses showed a strong association for colon but not rectal cancer (P for heterogeneity=0.048). Greater dietary intake of calcium was associated with a lower colorectal cancer risk. Dietary vitamin D was not associated with disease risk. Findings did not vary by sex and were not altered by corrections for season or month of blood donation. CONCLUSIONS: The results of this large observational study indicate a strong inverse association between levels of pre-diagnostic 25-(OH)D concentration and risk of colorectal cancer in western European populations. Further randomised trials are needed to assess whether increases in circulating 25-(OH)D concentration can effectively decrease the risk of colorectal cancer.