Despite recent concerns about the high prevalence of sub-clinical vitamin D deficiency in adolescents, relatively few studies have investigated the underlying reasons. The objective of the present study was to investigate the prevalence and predictors of vitamin D inadequacy among a large representative sample of adolescents living in Northern Ireland (54–55°N). Serum concentrations of 25-hydroxyvitamin D (25(OH)D) were analysed by enzyme-immunoassay in a subgroup of 1015 of the Northern Ireland Young Hearts 2000 cohort; a cross-sectional study of 12 and 15 year-old boys and girls. Overall mean 25(OH)D concentration throughout the year was 64·3 (range 5–174) nmol/l; 56·7 and 78·1 nmol/l during winter and summer, respectively. Reported intakes of vitamin D were very low (median 1·7 μg/d). Of those adolescents studied, 3 % and 36 % were vitamin D deficient and inadequate respectively, as defined by serum 25(OH)D concentrations < 25 and < 50 nmol/l. Of the subjects, 46 % and 17 % had vitamin D inadequacy during winter and summer respectively. Gender differences were also evident with 38 % and 55 % of boys and girls respectively classified as vitamin D inadequate during winter (P < 0·001). Predictors of vitamin D inadequacy during winter were vitamin D intake and gender. In conclusion, there is a high prevalence of vitamin D inadequacy in white-skinned adolescents in Northern Ireland, particularly during wintertime and most evident in girls. There is a clear need for dietary recommendations for vitamin D in this age group and for creative strategies to increase overall vitamin D status in the population.