Background Cross-sectional studies with binary outcomes analyzed by logistic regression are frequent in the epidemiological literature. However, the odds ratio can importantly overestimate the prevalence ratio, the measure of choice in these studies. Also, controlling for confounding is not equivalent for the two measures. In this paper we explore alternatives for modeling data of such studies with techniques that directly estimate the prevalence ratio. Methods We compared Cox regression with constant time at risk, Poisson regression and log-binomial regression against the standard Mantel-Haenszel estimators. Models with robust variance estimators in Cox and Poisson regressions and variance corrected by the scale parameter in Poisson regression were also evaluated. Results Three outcomes, from a cross-sectional study carried out in Pelotas, Brazil, with different levels of prevalence were explored: weight-for-age deficit (4%), asthma (31%) and mother in a paid job (52%). Unadjusted Cox/Poisson regression and Poisson regression with scale parameter adjusted by deviance performed worst in terms of interval estimates. Poisson regression with scale parameter adjusted by χ2 showed variable performance depending on the outcome prevalence. Cox/Poisson regression with robust variance, and log-binomial regression performed equally well when the model was correctly specified. Conclusions Cox or Poisson regression with robust variance and log-binomial regression provide correct estimates and are a better alternative for the analysis of cross-sectional studies with binary outcomes than logistic regression, since the prevalence ratio is more interpretable and easier to communicate to non-specialists than the odds ratio. However, precautions are needed to avoid estimation problems in specific situations.