Biochemical evidence of essential fatty acid deficiency (EFAD) may exist in protein-energy malnutrition (PEM). EFAD is characterised by low 18:2omega6, often in combination with low 20:4omega6 and 22:6omega3, and high 18:1omega9 and 20:3omega9. Some PEM symptoms, notably skin changes, impaired resistance to infections, impaired growth rate and disturbed development may at least partly be explained by EFAD. One or more of the following factors could induce EFAD in PEM: low EFA intake, poor lipid digestion, absorption, transport, desaturation and increased EFA beta-oxidation and peroxidation. EFAD may perpetuate itself by decreasing lipid absorption and transport, and aggravate PEM by impairing nutrient absorption and dietary calorie utilisation. Micronutrient deficiencies may contribute to the impaired EFA bioavailability and metabolism. Nutritional rehabilitation strategies in PEM may consider adequate intakes of EFA and micronutrients, e.g. by promoting breastfeeding. More research is required to gain detailed insight into the role of EFAD in PEM.