The evidence on a cancer-protective effect of the Mediterranean diet (MD) is still limited. Therefore, we investigated the association between MD adherence and lung cancer risk. Data were used from 120 852 participants of the Netherlands Cohort Study (NLCS), aged 55–69 years. Dietary habits were assessed at baseline (1986) using a validated FFQ and alternate and modified Mediterranean diet scores (aMED and mMED, respectively), including and excluding alcohol, were calculated. After 20·3 years of follow-up, 2861 lung cancer cases and 3720 subcohort members (case-cohort design) could be included in multivariable Cox regression analyses. High (6–8) v. low (0–3) aMED excluding alcohol was associated with non-significantly reduced lung cancer risks in men and women with hazard ratios of 0·91 (95 % CI 0·72, 1·15) and 0·73 (95 % CI 0·49, 1·09), respectively. aMED-containing models generally fitted better than mMED-containing models. In never smokers, a borderline significant decreasing trend in lung cancer risk was observed with increasing aMED excluding alcohol. Analyses stratified by the histological lung cancer subtypes did not identify subtypes with a particularly strong inverse relation with MD adherence. Generally, the performance of aMED and World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research dietary score variants without alcohol was comparable. In conclusion, MD adherence was non-significantly inversely associated with lung cancer risk in the NLCS. Future studies should focus on differences in associations across the sexes and histological subtypes. Furthermore, exclusion of alcohol from MD scores should be investigated more extensively, primarily with respect to a potential role of the MD in cancer prevention.