Data on average iodine requirements for the Chinese population are limited following implementation of long-term universal salt iodisation. We explored the minimum iodine requirements of young adults in China using a balance experiment and the ‘iodine overflow’ hypothesis proposed by our team. Sixty healthy young adults were enrolled to consume a sequential experimental diet containing low, medium and high levels of iodine (about 20, 40 and 60 μg/d, respectively). Each dose was consumed for 4 d, and daily iodine intake, excretion and retention were assessed. All participants were in negative iodine balance throughout the study. Iodine intake, excretion and retention differed among the three iodine levels (P < 0·01 for all groups). The zero-iodine balance derived from a random effect model indicated a mean iodine intake of 102 μg/d, but poor correlation coefficients between observed and predicted iodine excretion (r 0·538 for μg/d data) and retention (r 0·304 for μg/d data). As iodine intake increased from medium to high, all of the increased iodine was excreted (‘overflow’) through urine and faeces by males, and 89·5 % was excreted by females. Although the high iodine level (63·4 μg/d) might be adequate in males, the corresponding level of 61·6 μg/d in females did not meet optimal requirements. Our findings indicate that a daily iodine intake of approximately half the current recommended nutrient intake (120 μg/d) may satisfy the minimum iodine requirements of young male adults in China, while a similar level is insufficient for females based on the ‘iodine overflow’ hypothesis.