In the past, a major challenge for nutrition research was in defining indicators of nutritional adequacy. More recently, the research base related to the role of nutrition in chronic disease has expanded sufficiently to permit moving beyond deficiency indicators to other indicators with broader functional significance. Thus, nutrition research is faced with the new challenge of defining 'optimal nutrition'. One definition of optimal nutrition with respect to any particular nutrient could be when a functional marker reaches an 'optimal value' or plateau beyond which it is not longer affected by intake or stores of the nutrient. A functional marker of nutrient status could be defined as a physiological or biochemical factor which (1) is related to function or effect of the nutrient in target tissue(s) and (2) is affected by dietary intake or stores of the nutrient (which may include markers of disease risk). Examples of such indicators or markers are those related to risk of chronic diseases such as osteoporosis, CHD, or hypertension. The present review focuses on the concept of optimal nutrition with respect to three nutrients, Ca, Mg and P. However, for P and Mg there are as yet no functional indicators which respond to dietary intake, and in such cases nutrient requirements are established using more traditional approaches, e.g. balance data. For Ca, there has been interest in using maximal Ca retention, which is based on balance data, bone mass measurements and biomarkers of bone turnover as useful functional indicators of the adequacy of Ca intake.