When most people hear the word "malnutrition," they tend to think of starving children in developing countries. However, malnutrition, or the lack of getting proper nutrients in the right amounts, exists in every part of the world and can affect people of all ages. In fact, a whopping 50 percent of patients in hospitals worldwide aren't adequately nourished or are at risk of malnutrition. "Hospitalization can lead to malnutrition because, while in hospital care, patients may not get the right nutrients to live a healthful life," says Abby Sauer, a registered dietitian specializing in adult nutrition for Abbott. If malnutrition happens long enough, it can have a significant impact on a person's health—including unexplained weight loss. While older adults are at risk because of medications or natural appetite loss, a nutritionally imbalanced diet can contribute to malnutrition in younger, presumably healthy people. (Here are signs you could have a nutrient deficiency.) The best way to treat malnutrition is to prevent it before it becomes serious. "Make sure you're eating balanced meals that include the right mix of protein, fat, and carbohydrates," says Sauer. If you become hospitalized, keep nutrition top of mind and talk with hospital professionals to ensure you're well nourished during and after your stay. (Don't miss these 50 secrets hospitals won't tell you.)
Muscle loss (sarcopenia)
Research shows that ignoring muscle health is one reason why about 45 percent of older U.S. adults experience muscle loss as they age. "The technical term for this muscle atrophy is sarcopenia, which can begin as early as your 40s and cause unexplained weight loss and reduced strength, energy, and mobility," Sauer says. While hormonal changes can contribute to how your body builds and stores muscle as you age, most cases of sarcopenia are linked to poor nutrition as well as inactivity. One of the best ways to prevent and treat muscle loss, and the weight loss that accompanies it: Add more protein and vitamin D to your diet. "Older adults often require more protein to build the same amount of muscle, since the body becomes less efficient at processing protein," Sauer says. (These are signs you're not eating enough protein.) It's also helpful to add weights to your workouts. "Every time you lift, press, or pull a weight, you create microscopic tears in your muscles—and your body responds with signals to repair your muscles, and then some." The result: You come back to your next workout, as well as everyday tasks, with greater muscle mass and strength.
Cancer in general can cause weight loss, but there are several types of cancer, such as lung, pancreatic, biliary, and colon that are known to lead to unexplained weight loss. "Abnormally functioning cancer cells grow out of control, speed up your metabolism, and wear out your entire body by using its resources, which causes weight loss," says Michael Russo, MD, general surgeon who specializes in bariatric surgery at MemorialCare Center for Obesity at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California. Cancer treatments can also lead to weight loss. Radiation and chemotherapy often cause a decrease in appetite, and it can lead to side effects, including nausea, vomiting, and mouth sores that discourage eating. These are cancer symptoms every woman should know about as well as cancer symptoms men should pay attention to.
Unexplained weight loss could be a sign of a thyroid problem. "Also known as Graves' disease, hyperthyroidism is a type of autoimmune disease causing the thyroid gland to produce excessive amounts of the thyroid hormone, which speeds up the metabolism to the point where the body is burning more calories than it can consume," says Sherry Ross, MD, OB/GYN and Women's Health Expert at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California. "Causes of hyperthyroidism include Hashimoto's thyroiditis, certain medication such as lithium, radiation treatments to the neck, thyroid surgery, pregnancy, and iodine deficiency." Making sure your thyroid is evaluated with blood tests can identify an overactive thyroid.
HIV and AIDS
Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, also known as AIDS, is a chronic, potentially life-threatening disease that's caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). "HIV can make it harder for your body to absorb nutrients, which causes malnutrition and can lead to a decreased appetite," says Lisa Ashe, DO, board-certified internal medicine physician. While there's no cure for HIV or AIDS, there are medications that can dramatically slow the progression of the disease and allow you to live an otherwise healthy life.
Peptic ulcer disease
Peptic ulcers are open sores that develop on the inside lining of the stomach as well as on the upper portion of the small intestine. They cause pain and increase acid production, leading to reflux. Because the main symptom of peptic ulcers is stomach pain, they often cause decreased appetite," says Dr. Ashe. Lifestyle modifications in combination with different medications are the best way to treat the disease and any weight loss associated with it. Check the signs that your stomach pain may be an ulcer.
You probably know that depression is a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest in most things—even ones that the person enjoyed previously. You might also know that weight gain is a common symptom associated with depression, but it can also lead to weight loss. "Unfortunately, one of the many side effects of this debilitating disease is loss of appetite, which naturally causes a person to lose weight," says Dr. Ashe. While there's no one single cause for depression, many of them can be treated effectively with medication and therapy—though, some antidepressants can also contribute to further weight loss. Talk to your doctor about incorporating some of these strategies to treat depression naturally.
Congestive heart failure
This deadly disease, which occurs when the heart is unable to pump enough blood and oxygen to the heart and the rest of the body, affects more than five million Americans. An important indicator of this condition, or a worsening heart condition in general, is the rapid unexplained weight loss (a loss of at least 7.5 percent of normal weight within 6 months), known as cardiac cachexia. "Since the intestines require proper blood flow just like the rest of the body's organs, researchers have speculated that reduced blood flow might be to blame for gastrointestinal and weight-loss symptoms associated with heart failure," says Dr. Youdim. If you or someone you know experiences rapid weight loss along with shortness of breath, chronic coughing, fatigue, and nausea, seek medical attention immediately, as all are signs of congestive heart failure.
We often associate diabetes with weight gain or obesity, but weight loss can actually be a surprising diabetes symptom. When the body is no longer able to produce insulin sufficiently, glucose is no longer making it into the bloodstream to be used as energy. "When there is an insufficiency in insulin, the body starts burning fat and muscle for energy, causing a reduction in overall body weight," says Dr. Ashe. See your doctor if you think diabetes may be to blame for unexplained weight loss.
Alcohol might be loaded with calories and cause bloating, but being an alcoholic can also cause a person to lose dramatic amounts of weight. "This tends to happen because there's an increased fullness and early satiety that comes along with drinking to the point of excess," says Dr. Ashe. "Additionally, alcoholism can lead to peptic ulcer disease, which also causes weight loss." Here's what addiction counselors wish everyone knew about drug or alcohol abuse.