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What is Unintentional Weight Loss?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Unintentional weight loss is weight loss which is not deliberately brought about through conscious choice and effort such as making modifications to a diet and exercise routine. When people experience unintentional weight loss, it is usually a sign that something is wrong, and it is a good idea to see a doctor to discuss the weight loss and the possible causes. This type of weight loss can involve loss of fat, body fluids, and muscle, depending on the underlying cause.

One of the most common causes for unintentional weight loss is an underlying illness which leads to loss of appetite or metabolic changes which cause someone to lose weight. Weight loss associated with chronic conditions like AIDS and cancer is known as cachexia, and it can become a serious complication of the disease. People can also lose weight as a result of medications being used to treat a disease, or from drug abuse, depression, malnutrition, chronic diarrhea, eating disorders, and infections.

Patients may not notice unintentional weight loss immediately. Common signs of weight loss include clothing which does not fit properly, or radical changes to the appearance of the face. Since patients are not deliberately setting out to lose weight, they are usually not looking for the early signs of weight loss, and a friend or family member may draw the patient's attention to the loss before the patient realizes what is going on.

When a patient sees a doctor for unintentional weight loss, he or she will usually be weighed to determine how much body weight has been lost, and an examination may be conducted to see where the weight is being lost. If the patient is currently in treatment for a disease which causes weight loss, or is taking medications linked with weight loss such as chemotherapy drugs, the doctor can use several techniques to approach the issue, from adjusting the patient's medication to providing supplemental nutrition.

In cases where there is no explanation for the unintentional weight loss, the doctor will conduct a patient interview and use medical tests to try and determine the cause. Once a cause has been found, the doctor can make treatment recommendations which will address the weight loss as well as the source of the problem. Patients should make sure to mention any and all associated symptoms and issues, as even something seemingly unimportant can be a useful clue when a doctor is examining a patient who has lost weight unexpectedly.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By tigers88 — On Dec 28, 2011

I experienced unintentional weight loss when I was in the Peace Corps. I was sent to a village in Nariobi to assist with promoting sanitation practices. I was living in the village and doing everything the villagers did.

Between the limited diet and the constant exercise I started losing weight immediately. I came back from the peace corps 25 pounds lighter than when I went. This would have been great if I was trying to loose weight, but I was healthy and pleased with my looks before I went. They were 25 pounds I wasn't trying to get rid of.

When I got back to the states I actually had to eat a high fat high carb diet for about a month to bring my weight up.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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