Human appropriation of land for food production has fundamentally altered the Earth system, with impacts on water, soil, air quality, and the climate system. Changes in population, dietary preferences, technology and crop productivity have all played important roles in shaping today’s land use. In this paper, we explore how past and present developments in diets impact on global agricultural land use. We introduce an index for the Human Appropriation of Land for Food (HALF), and use it to isolate the effects of diets on agricultural land areas, including the potential consequences of shifts in consumer food preferences. We find that if the global population adopted consumption patterns equivalent to particular current national per capita rates, agricultural land use area requirements could vary over a 14-fold range. Within these variations, the types of food commodities consumed are more important than the quantity of per-capita consumption in determining the agricultural land requirement, largely due to the impact of animal products and in particular ruminant species. Exploration of the average diets in the USA and India (which lie towards but not at global consumption extremes) provides a framework for understanding land use impacts arising from different food consumption habits. Hypothetically, if the world were to adopt the average Indian diet, 55% less agricultural land would be needed to satisfy demand, while global consumption of the average USA diet would necessitate 178% more land. Waste and over-eating are also shown to be important. The area associated with food waste, including over-consumption, given global adoption of the consumption patterns of the average person in the USA, was found to be twice that required for all food production given an average Indian per capita consumption. Therefore, measures to influence future diets and reduce food waste could substantially contribute towards global food security, as well as providing climate change mitigation options.