Summary The nutritional condition of an individual, or the extent of malnutrition in a population, can be measured either in terms of outcomes , i.e. current status, or in terms of inputs , i.e rates of consumption of nutrients and/or energy in diets. A review of the methods of measurement in common use for these two approaches, and of their technical limitations, is followed by an account of the problems of interpretation of these in the light of contemporary ideas about the causes of growth faltering in children. Also discussed is the basis for standards of normality for growth and for nutrient intake levels, and the extent to which adaptive changes in behaviour or physiology may compensate for low levels of intake. It is concluded that, provided these problems are recognised, nutritional indicators can play a useful role in assessing overall food and health situations, particularly when accompanied by other complementary measurements of the effects of the health environment of the households and their social and economic characteristics.