Weight loss

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at December 10, 2015
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Most individuals have experienced unplanned weight loss at some point in their life due to a stomach virus or a bout of the flu. Although this type of weight loss is to be expected with these illnesses, there could be a more serious underlying condition when weight loss begins unexpectedly.


Definition & Facts

Unexplained weight loss is a condition that is characterized by exactly that: weight loss. Generally, this weight loss is unexpected and is not the result of increased physical activity or restricted caloric intake. It affects 40% of all cancer patients, and the majority of those who suffer from celiac disease.

Although this condition typically affects adults, it sometimes can be seen in infants as well, where it is called ‘failure to thrive’. The causes of unexplained weight loss are vast but can often be a warning sign of a serious underlying condition.


Many illnesses could possibly contribute to unexplained weight loss, with the most common being cancer, celiac disease, hyperthyroidism and ulcerative colitis. Cancer is a condition where abnormal cells divide at an uncontrolled rate and destroys healthy tissues within the body. Once the body's immune system detects cancerous cells, the body diverts the majority of its energy to trying to rid itself of these cells.

Because cancer can spread so rapidly, the body uses up the majority of its energy stores trying to heal it. This increases the rate at which the metabolism burns body fat and can cause extreme weight loss in a short period. In fact, the number one symptom of undiagnosed cancer is a sudden onset of weight loss. Hyperthyroidism causes weight loss in almost the same way in regards that the metabolism is burning stored body fat at an increased rate.

Celiac disease and colitis are both illnesses that affect the digestive system, mainly the intestines. Both conditions affect the way in which the body absorbs nutrients from food properly, therefore causing an array of symptoms such as anemia from a lack of iron. Both of these conditions also affects the way the body absorbs fat from the diet, which can lead to mild, moderate and even significant amounts of weight loss in a short time.

When to see a doctor

If unexplained weight loss becomes consistent or is occurring rapidly, a trip to see a physician for an evaluation may be necessary. Many experts have stated that the exact point at which unexplained weight loss should be of concern is not exact and can vary from person to person. The consensus is if a person has lost more than 5% of his or her total body weight in a period of six months to a year, they should schedule a physical with their doctor.

This is especially important for senior citizens or young children. A person who weighs 160 pounds (72,5 kg) and unexpectedly loses 8 pounds (3,6 kg) has experienced a 5% weight loss. If dietary habits have changed, or there has been an increase in physical activity, the weight loss may not be of concern. If an individual's lifestyle has not experienced any changes in these two areas, an exam from a physician is highly recommended to help determine the underlying cause of the weight loss.

Treatment & Therapy

The treatment for unexplained weight loss depends largely upon the cause behind it. Weight loss because of a cancer is often treated through dietary enhancements, such as nutritional supplements. To jumpstart the appetite, a hormone called progesterone will be given that not only stimulates the individual to consume larger amounts of food, but also improves their overall well-being.

One of the most common side effects of chemotherapy is nausea, which can make it difficult to hold down any food consumed. Steroids may be given to help counteract the nausea and make it easier for an individual to eat a meal without vomiting. Mineral supplements, multivitamins and extra protein at every meal can help negate the weight loss effects of cancer. If the unexplained weight loss is a result of an over active thyroid, medications can be given to help balance this gland for optimal hormonal output and help bring the metabolism back to a normal function.

If weight loss is caused by an intestinal condition, such as Crohn's disease or colitis, a physician or nutritionist can help determine which foods should be eliminated from the diet (usually gluten and dairy), and may perform a food allergy test. Once these foods are removed from the diet and the intestines begin to heal, the individual will slowly but steadily start regaining weight.

At the first signs of unexplained weight loss, many physicians will recommend a counseling session with a nutritionist to determine if there are any deficiencies in the diet that can be corrected nutritionally. Usually this includes adding healthy amounts of fat to the diet, as well as nutrient dense foods such as dark leafy greens. A multivitamin routine may also be recommended. If this fails to correct the weight loss, further tests will be performed to determine if any other adjustments or treatments are needed.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

Depending upon the illness that has caused it, unexplained weight loss may not be entirely preventable. In the case of senior citizens, ensuring that they are consuming nutrient dense foods full of healthy fats can help keep muscle tissue intact and maintain a healthy body weight. Making sure a senior consumes ample amounts of protein at every meal, following a multivitamin regimen and supplementing with nutritional shakes will help to keep their weight at an acceptable level.

To prevent weight loss caused by conditions such as celiac disease, it is advisable to eliminate known allergens from the diet. Avoid processed foods and those containing high amounts of gluten. Because these foods are known to trigger weight loss with those suffering from these two conditions, being proactive in eliminating them from the diet can be beneficial. In the cases of hyperthyroidism, making sure to consume foods that are beneficial to the thyroid, such as berries, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, salmon and turkey can help balance the thyroid gland and prevent weight loss.

Because unexplained weight loss is often caused by insufficient amounts of fat and nutrients, staying away from processed foods that contain high amounts of refined flours and white sugars is a good idea. Replace them with healthy alternatives such as fruits, vegetables and lean cuts of meat to ensure you are receiving all the nutrients your body needs to function at optimal levels and maintain a healthy weight.

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