When Is Weight Loss a Problem?

Reviewed by William Blahd, MD on February 06, 2016

With some medical conditions, it’s common to lose weight without trying to. Even if you were carrying extra pounds before you got sick, unintended weight loss can become a health risk. At what point should you be concerned?

“If someone loses greater than 10% of their weight within a 6-month period, we consider them to be at nutrition risk,” says Marcia Nahikian-Nelms, PhD, RDN, director of coordinated dietetic programs at The Ohio State University College of Medicine.

Even if you could stand to lose that 10%, the drop on the scale over a relatively short period of time may make it harder for your body to heal.

“The ability to make it through treatment and recover depend on lean body mass,” Nahikian-Nelms says. When an overweight person battling a disease has unintended weight loss, “they don’t lose just fat, they also lose muscle. The loss of muscle is what really places someone at nutrition risk. It affects strength and immune [system] function.”

These seven tips can help you minimize weight loss.

1. Get on the scale regularly.

This may seem like an add-on to an already lengthy to-do list when you or someone you love has a medical condition. But weight loss can be easy to miss otherwise.

“I recommend patients weigh themselves on a regular basis, at least weekly, to keep an eye on the trend,” says Lisa Cimperman, RD, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

“For someone not doing that, signs of weakness and fatigue might be the first things you see to alert you to the fact that your loved one has lost a significant amount of weight.”

2. Be creative about mealtime.

Throw out the notion of three square meals. Add in snacks and eat throughout the day. You're looking to keep calories coming in.  

3. Make every bite count.

When you have a medical condition, weight loss can set you up for malnutrition. That's when you don’t get the right amount of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. 

People who are malnourished and are admitted to the hospital take longer to heal wounds, stay longer in the hospital, and are more likely to be readmitted. They’re also at risk of post-surgical complications by up to two to five times higher.

“I tell my patients all the time, ‘We are going to pack every bite or sip with calories, protein, and other nutrients,’” Nahikian-Nelms says.

4. Get help from a pro.

If you have trouble chewing or swallowing, work with a dietitian on strategies, such as pureeing foods, to make sure you get enough nutrition.

“We can change the texture of foods and the way we give them to you in order to make sure you get the nutrients you need,” Nahikian-Nelms says.

Your doctor or a dietitian can also suggest other ways to get the calories and nutrients your body needs if meals and snacks aren’t enough.

5. Boost your appetite.

Take a short walk every day. It’ll rev up your hunger and your energy. Research backs that up. Studies show that aerobic exercise helped ease fatigue in adults during and after cancer treatment. So when it’s possible, try to be active, even if it’s not as active as you used to be.

6. Drink up, after you eat.

Don’t sip water before and during meals. It will fill you up, and you’ll eat less. Drink between meals, instead, so that you don’t cut back at mealtime.

7. Arrange food on the plate.

Try this trick if you're caring for a loved one who needs to eat everything that’s served to them. Place their favorite food on the far side of the plate, with the other things they need to eat closer to them. Encourage them to start with the items they need and work their way to those they enjoy more.

Show Sources


Marcia Nahikian-Nelms, PhD, RDN, director, coordinated dietetic programs, Ohio State University College of Medicine.

Lisa Cimperman, RD, spokeswoman, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Corkins, M. Journal of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition. November 2013.

National Cancer Institute.

Cramp, F. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, November 2012.

Kristi King, RDN, spokeswoman, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

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