© 2016 Macmillan Publishers Limited, part of Springer Nature. All rights reserved. The performance and population dynamics of insect herbivores depend on the nutritive and defensive traits of their host plants. The literature on plant-herbivore interactions focuses on plant trait mean values, but recent studies showing the importance of plant genetic diversity for herbivores suggest that plant trait variance may be equally important. The consequences of plant trait variance for herbivore performance, however, have been largely overlooked. Here we report an extensive assessment of the effects of within-population plant trait variance on herbivore performance using 457 performance datasets from 53 species of insect herbivores. We show that variance in plant nutritive traits substantially reduces mean herbivore performance via non-linear averaging of performance relationships that were overwhelmingly concave down. By contrast, relationships between herbivore performance and plant defence levels were typically linear, with variance in plant defence not affecting herbivore performance via non-linear averaging. Our results demonstrate that plants contribute to the suppression of herbivore populations through variable nutrient levels, not just by having low average quality as is typically thought. We propose that this phenomenon could play a key role in the suppression of herbivore populations in natural systems, and that increased nutrient heterogeneity within agricultural crops could contribute to the sustainable control of insect pests in agroecosystems.