The effect of dietary calcium on vertebral bone mass in women is controversial. In a randomized study we have investigated the effect of dietary modification in the form of dairy products on vertebral bone mass in 30- to 42-yr-old premenopausal women over a 3-yr period. Twenty women increased their dietary calcium intake by an average of 610 mg/day (P less than 0.03) for 3 yr, while 17 age- and weight-matched women served as controls. Calcium intake was monitored by 3-day diet histories and 24-h urinary calcium excretion. The consumption of the dairy products did not alter serum calcium or PTH levels or the fasting urinary calcium to creatinine ratio. Twenty-four-hour urinary calcium excretion increased by 28% (P less than 0.03) in the supplemented women. Dairy product intake was accompanied by increased dietary fat intake, but there were no statistically significant changes in serum cholesterol, low density lipoprotein cholesterol, or high density lipoprotein cholesterol levels. The vertebral bone density in the women consuming increased calcium did not change over the 3-yr period (-0.4 +/- 0.9%). In contrast, the vertebral bone density in the control women declined (-2.9 +/- 0.8%; P less than 0.001) and was significantly lower than that in the supplemented group at 30 and 36 months. The study suggests that dietary modification in the form of dairy products retards vertebral bone loss in premenopausal women. Therefore, increased calcium intake in estrogen-replete premenopausal women may prevent age-related bone loss.