Kwashiorkor in the United States: fad diets, perceived and true milk allergy, and nutritional ignorance

Arch Dermatol. 2001 May;137(5):630-6.


Background: Kwashiorkor is the edematous form of protein-energy malnutrition. It is associated with extreme poverty in developing countries and with chronic malabsorptive conditions such as cystic fibrosis in developed countries. Rare cases of kwashiorkor in affluent countries unrelated to chronic illness have been reported. We present 12 cases of kwashiorkor unrelated to chronic illness seen over 9 years by pediatric dermatologists throughout the United States, and discuss common causative themes in this easily preventable condition.

Observations: Twelve children were diagnosed as having kwashiorkor in 7 tertiary referral centers throughout the United States. The diagnoses were based on the characteristic rash and the overall clinical presentation. The rash consisted of an erosive, crusting, desquamating dermatitis sometimes with classic "pasted-on" scale-the so-called flaky paint sign. Most cases were due to nutritional ignorance, perceived milk intolerance, or food faddism. Half of the cases were the result of a deliberate deviation to a protein-deficient diet because of a perceived intolerance of formula or milk. Financial and social stresses were a factor in only 2 cases, and in both cases social chaos was more of a factor than an absolute lack of financial resources. Misleading dietary histories and the presence of edema masking growth failure obscured the clinical picture in some cases.

Conclusions: Physicians should consider the diagnosis of kwashiorkor in children with perceived milk allergies resulting in frequent dietary manipulations, in children following fad or unorthodox diets, or in children living in homes with significant social chaos. The presence of edema and "flaky paint" dermatitis should prompt a careful dietary investigation.

Publication types

  • Case Reports

MeSH terms

  • Diet Fads / adverse effects*
  • Dietary Proteins / administration & dosage*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Knowledge*
  • Kwashiorkor / diet therapy
  • Kwashiorkor / etiology*
  • Kwashiorkor / pathology
  • Male
  • Milk Hypersensitivity / diet therapy*
  • Nutritional Physiological Phenomena*


  • Dietary Proteins