Studies of individual nutrients or foods have revealed much about dietary influences on bone. Multiple food or nutrient approaches, such as dietary pattern analysis, could offer further insight but research is limited and largely confined to older adults. We examined the relationship between dietary patterns, obtained by a posteriori and a priori methods, and bone mineral status (BMS; collective term for bone mineral content (BMC) and bone mineral density (BMD)) in young adults (20–25 years; n 489). Diet was assessed by 7 d diet history and BMD and BMC were determined at the lumbar spine and femoral neck (FN). A posteriori dietary patterns were derived using principal component analysis (PCA) and three a priori dietary quality scores were applied (dietary diversity score (DDS), nutritional risk score and Mediterranean diet score). For the PCA-derived dietary patterns, women in the top compared to the bottom fifth of the ‘Nuts and Meat’ pattern had greater FN BMD by 0·074 g/cm2 (P = 0·049) and FN BMC by 0·40 g (P = 0·034) after adjustment for confounders. Similarly, men in the top compared to the bottom fifth of the ‘Refined’ pattern had lower FN BMC by 0·41 g (P = 0·049). For the a priori DDS, women in the top compared to the bottom third had lower FN BMD by 0·05 g/cm2 after adjustments (P = 0·052), but no other relationships with BMS were identified. In conclusion, adherence to a ‘Nuts and Meat’ dietary pattern may be associated with greater BMS in young women and a ‘Refined’ dietary pattern may be detrimental for bone health in young men.