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Unexplained Weight Loss: 'Problem' or 'Yes, Please'?

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Unexplained Weight Loss: 'Problem' or 'Yes, Please'?

Feb 02, 2021

With 2020 and election season in the rear view, it’s safe to say that most of America is looking forward toward greater, more tranquil things this upcoming year. The past year was tough for a number of obvious reasons and some that kind of crept up on people, including the addition of ‘the COVID-19’ to our body frames. While the term became a common way to describe unwanted and unexpected weight gain over the last year, others experienced a different type of problem over the last year: unexpected weight loss. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “and, how exactly is that a problem?!” Trust me, I hear you. And for most who gained weight during the pandemic, weight loss would be a welcome sight and reason to celebrate. However, the appeal of unexpected weight loss changes quickly when that unexplained weight loss is happening due to some underlying, potentially dangerous conditions that have yet to be discovered. 

So, what if you are experiencing unexplained weight loss? Is it a sign in your life of something more serious? Let’s talk about when you should worry about weight loss and what your unexpected weight loss could mean. 

When Should I Worry About Weight Loss?

If you are on a program including a more strict diet and exercise, then weight loss is something that can be expected, especially if that is the goal for which you began your program. In this case, you want to make sure that you are still getting the proper amount of nutrients and energy your body needs to perform at peak capabilities. Sometimes, weight loss can be attributed to lifestyle changes, such as a job where you burn more calories than you intake due to the nature of the work. However, if your weight loss is more unexplained, and you can’t point to a specific reason after putting in some thought, then it’s time to evaluate and even see your physician. In fact, many doctors point to the 5% in 6 months rule when it comes to worrying about and seeking answers for unexpected weight loss. So, for example, if an otherwise healthy, 120lb person drops 5% of their body weight, or 6lbs, for no obvious reason, then this person should schedule a visit with his or her doctor to make sure there isn’t an underlying issue. The same can be said for a 180lb person who loses 5%, or 9lbs, unexpectedly. Again, there may be exactly nothing to worry about. However, unexplained weight loss could be the first sign you notice of something else happening inside of you.

Why Am I Losing Weight for ‘No Reason’?

While there are many potential reasons you may be losing weight unexpectedly, here are several reasons for which you should get checked out by a physician. 


People diagnosed with diabetes are often drawn to the doctor for the first time due to unexplained weight loss. Weight loss happens in people with Type 1 Diabetes more often than in those with Type 2. Frequent urination, which can lead to dehydration, can explain some weight loss. More commonly, people with diabetes have insufficient levels of insulin, preventing the body from getting the sugars it needs to use as energy. Thus, the body begins burning fat and muscle for energy and even taxing other organs like the kidneys. This can cause an overall reduction in weight.

Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)

IBD is another potential issue that could be causing unexplained weight loss. IBD refers to two gastrointestinal conditions: Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. IBD can impact the body’s ability to properly digest food, making the absorption of nutrients that much more difficult. This can lead to malnutrition, and ultimately weight loss. While there is no known cure for Crohn’s disease, there are treatments that can help manage some of the symptoms. Ulcerative colitis can be treated using drug therapy or even surgery. 


Is weight loss an indicator of cancer? Well, for some it may be. It is much more commonly seen in cancers that affect the gastrointestinal tract, like esophageal cancerpancreatic cancercolorectal cancer, liver cancer, and stomach cancer. In fact, some studies have shown that up to 80% of people with pancreatic, esophageal, or stomach cancer had lost a significant amount of weight by the time they went to the doctor, were tested, and ultimately diagnosed. Also, according to the American Cancer Society, the unexplained weight loss of 10 or more pounds could be the first sign of cancer. 

Celiac Disease

Can unexplained weight loss be an indicator of celiac disease? Absolutely. In fact, it is often one of the first indicators to a doctor that they may be dealing with a celiac diagnosis. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease in which the lining of the small intestine is damaged. The presence of gluten triggers this abnormal immune response that damages the villi, preventing them from helping the body absorb the needed nutrients. Other symptoms that can help explain weight loss in those suffering from celiac disease include diarrhea, fatigue, cramps, and bloating.

This is by no means a comprehensive list, and there are other potential causes of unexplained weight loss, including but not limited:

  • Stomach ulcers
  • Medications
  • Heart disease
  • A condition that causes dysphagia
  • Bacterial, viral or parasitic infections
  • Depression
  • Hyperthyroidism

The important thing to do is to constantly pay attention to your body, and when it comes to unexplained weight loss, seek to find answers. 

When Should I See a Doctor About Unexplained Weight Loss?

Reports show that 74% of those with unexplained weight loss had an underlying condition as the main cause of the loss. As such, it is important to take this occurrence seriously and get checked out. The body is an amazing place that gives us indicators and ‘red flags’ per se when something is amiss. Your weight loss may be your body telling you something is wrong and that it needs to get checked out. 

If you are experiencing unexplained weight loss, please contact us to schedule an appointment with one of our physicians.