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Unintentional weight loss

Unintentional weight loss

Involuntary weight loss is when a person reduces their body volume without wanting to. That is, this individual is not purposely undergoing a treatment or a specific diet to lose kilograms. The situation is considered a sign of alarm.

When asked about this problem, doctors immediately trace underlying causes to rule out malignant processes and serious diseases that put life at risk.

It is worth clarifying that not all involuntary weight loss is extremely serious, as long as it does not last over time. Therefore, a professional evaluation is important in each case to determine the steps that should be followed.

Strictly speaking, the health team should be alerted if more than 5% of the weight the person had before is lost in 6 months. If the drop in kilograms is at the limit of that percentage, you can wait up to a year.

Who is most at risk and why?

There are population groups more likely than others to suffer from involuntary weight loss. In a healthy adult it is rare, although it can appear spontaneously. The situation is different in those over 60 years of age, among whom the symptom can be detected with a frequency greater than 10%.

Involuntary weight loss leads to increased morbidity, and in patients with previous disease, the prognosis worsens. In the case of cancer, it is a sign of progression and poor response to treatments.

Causes of unintentional weight loss

A reason for involuntary weight loss that escapes medicine is socio-economic reasons. Lack of money and lack of accessibility to nutrients due to social barriers lead to unwanted malnutrition. On the other hand, we have three large groups of causes that we will see below: organic, psychological and medication.

Organic origins of unintentional weight loss

  • There are many organic causes of this symptom, from systemic disorders such as neoplasia, to hormonal changes such as diabetes. Sometimes they represent a real diagnostic challenge.
  • In cancer, we usually talk about constitutional syndrome, which is a combination of involuntary weight loss, asthenia (lack of strength) and anorexia (lack of appetite). Although it manifests itself in various malignant pathologies, it is more classic of stomach cancer.
  • Gastrointestinal disorders lead to lower weight because patients eat smaller amounts to avoid symptoms. This is true in celiac disease and Crohn's disease.
  • Among the hormonal variations that alter appetite and nutrient absorption is adrenal insufficiency, the maximum expression of which is Addison's disease. Diabetics suffer in different ways, linked to changes in the perception of taste and smell, as well as variations in insulin.
  • In patients experiencing neurological diseases, there is a behavioral alteration that explains the eating problems, and consequently, the weight loss. In Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and vascular dementia, patients reject food when it is offered.

Psychological causes

  • Depression is a cause of involuntary weight loss that can be masked by other pathologies. Depressed individuals eat less, but they often hide it and attribute their thinness to external factors or factors beyond their control.
  • Anorexia nervosa, characterized by refusal to eat, sometimes due to the inability to swallow, without a specific obstruction of the digestive tract, leads to thinness with serious health risks. It is a disorder that tends to appear in young women more frequently than in the rest of the population.
  • Finally, addictions to alcohol and other more powerful drugs, such as cocaine, displace eating habits. Addicts do not respect lunch or dinner times and do not ingest the nutrients that the body needs to build its body mass.


  • Various drugs have weight loss among their adverse effects. Indicated by another symptom or another pathology, they cause in the background a decrease in body kilograms.
  • Levothyroxine prescribed in hypothyroidism accelerates metabolism and, in high doses, consumes kilocalories.
  • Levodopa for Parkinson's disease also causes unintentional weight loss, as do digoxin and liraglutide.

Don't waste time with unintentional weight loss

Both people who notice an abrupt drop in weight and doctors who are consulted about this symptom need to be alert. It is essential that appropriate complementary tests be performed to obtain the diagnosis and treat the origin of the problem, so that it does not worsen.

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