A low vitamin D status could be a concern not only in children and the elderly in Europe, but also in adults. We do not know the effect of mild vitamin D deficiency on bone in this age group. The aim of this study was to detect the prevalence of low serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D [S-25(OH)D] and elevated serum intact parathyroid hormone (S-iPTH) concentrations in healthy young adults in the winter in northern Europe and to characterize the determinants of these variables. In addition, we studied the association between vitamin D status and forearm bone mineral density (BMD) in this population group. Three hundred and twenty-eight healthy adults (202 women and 126 men, 31-43 years) from southern Finland (60 degrees N) participated in this study conducted in February through March 1998. Fasting overnight blood samples were collected in the morning. Forearm BMD was measured by dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DXA). The mean daily vitamin D intake met the recommendations in the men (5.6 +/- 3.2 microg) and almost met it in the women (4.7 +/- 2.5 microg). The mean S-25(OH)D concentrations did not differ between genders (women, 47 +/- 34 nM; men, 45 +/- 35 nM; mean +/- SD), but the women had significantly higher mean S-iPTH levels than the men (women, 30 +/- 13 ng/liter; men, 24 +/- 12 ng/liter; p < 0.001). Low S-25(OH)D concentrations (<25 nM) were found in 26.2% of the women (53 women) and 28.6% of the men (36 men), respectively. Based on nonlinear regression analysis between S-25(OH)D and S-iPTH concentration, the S-iPTH concentration started to increase with S-25(OH)D concentrations lower than approximately 80 nM in the women and lower than approximately 40 nM in the men. Based on this relation between S-25(OH)D and S-iPTH concentrations, 86% of the women and 56% of the men had an insufficient vitamin D status. In linear regression analysis, the main positive determinants of S-25(OH)D were dietary vitamin D intake (p < 0.02), the use of supplements (p < 0.005), alcohol intake (p < 0.05), and age (p < 0.005). Smoking associated negatively with the S-25(OH)D concentration (p < 0.03). The main determinants of S-iPTH were S-25(OH)D (p < 0.01), dietary calcium intake (p < 0.02), and body mass index (BMI; p < 0.01). In addition, female gender was associated with higher S-iPTH concentration. The mean daily dietary calcium intake was 1,037 +/- 489 mg and 962 +/- 423 mg, in the men and women, respectively. Significantly lower forearm BMD was found in the men (p = 0.01) but not in the women (p = 0.14) with higher S-iPTH concentrations. Low vitamin D status was prevalent in these young adults in northern Europe in winter, although the vitamin D intake met the recommendation. This probably is not a local problem for northern Europe, because the natural sources of vitamin D are scarce and fortification is not very common in Europe, and with the exception of the southern part of Europe, sunshine is not very abundant in this part of the world. Thus, the results of this study indicate that more attention should be focused on vitamin D status and the sources of vitamin D in these countries.