Presented and described in detail is a clinical technique called subjective global assessment (SGA), which assesses nutritional status based on features of the history and physical examination. Illustrative cases are presented. To clarify further the nature of the SGA, the method was applied before gastrointestinal surgery to 202 hospitalized patients. The primary aim of the study was to determine the extent to which our clinician's SGA ratings were influenced by the individual clinical variables on which the clinicians were taught to base their assessments. Virtually all of these variables were significantly related to SGA class. Multivariate analysis showed that ratings were most affected by loss of subcutaneous tissue, muscle wasting, and weight loss. A high degree of interobserver agreement was found (kappa = 0.78, 95% confidence interval 0.624 to 0.944, p less than 0.001). We conclude that SGA can easily be taught to a variety of clinicians (residents, nurses), and that this technique is reproducible.