A nutritional supplementation trial (Vlaming et al., Clin Nutr 2001; 20: 517) enabled us to assess the nutrition of 1561 patients on emergency admission to hospital. Patients acutely admitted to the 15 relevant medical, surgical and orthopaedic wards were identified. Mid upper arm circumference (MUAC) measurements were obtained in 95% (848 m, 635f) patients. For clinical reasons, Body mass index (BMI) was assessable in only 44% patients (408 m, 285f). Data on three month weight loss were obtainable in 509 patients. These measurements combined to demonstrate that 18.3% of patients were undernourished (At least one of : BMI<20 kg/m(2) or MUAC<25 cm or loss of weight > or =10%). There was a close relationship between BMI and MUAC. Regression equations (excluding age)were for men : BMI=1.01 x MUAC-4.7, (R(2)=0.76), and for women BMI=1.10 x MUAC-6.7, (R(2)=0.76). After adjustment for age, weight loss > or =10% was the most significant of the three as a predictor of mortality. Among patients in whom weight loss was not recorded MUAC was a significant predictor of mortality either alone (P=0.002) or after adjustment for BMI (P=0.007), but BMI was not significant. All three measures, even when adjusted for age and sex, were poor predictors of hospital stay although MUAC was significant in the larger group with a MUAC measure (R(2)=0.7% P<0.001). MUAC correlates closely with BMI, is easier to measure and predicts poor outcome better.