Feature Archive

Evaluating Your Weight

For some, the focus is maintaining weight, not losing it.

By R. Morgan Griffin
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Michael Smith

In a society focused on obesity and staying fit, it's important to remember that dropping some pounds isn't always healthy. For some -- particularly people who are coping with medical conditions like cancer or arthritis -- the danger is losing weight, not gaining it.

Some people lose weight without trying because they simply aren't eating enough to maintain a healthy weight. Some types of cancer -- or treatments for it -- can leave you chronically nauseous. Arthritis can make it hard to get to the grocery store, or even to do simple things around the kitchen. Food may just not taste as good as it once did because of side effects of medication.

Any of these problems can cause unwanted and possibly dangerous weight loss, which can leave you malnourished, weak, and vulnerable to illness. That's especially risky for someone who is already sick.

But how do you know if you're losing too much weight? To answer the question, here are some tips on how to keep a healthy weight and get the nutrients you need.

How Do I Know if My Weight Is Healthy?

Obviously, a healthy weight varies from person to person, depending on age and medical condition. But there are some general rules of thumb. You may need to see a doctor and you may be losing weight too quickly if -- without trying to -- you lose:

  • 10 pounds over six months or
  • 10% of your body weight or
  • Five pounds in one week.

The problem is that you may not realize that you're losing weight. Even caretakers may not notice because the changes can be gradual, says Jean Lloyd, RD, national nutritionist for the U.S. Administration on Aging. But if you're at risk of losing too much weight, you have to pay attention.

  • Step on the scale. Ask your health care provider for an idea of what a healthy weight is for someone of your height and build. See how you compare. Then get on the scale every week and write down your weight afterward. If you're losing weight, talk to your doctor.

    Some older people complain that they can no longer see the display on their old scale. If that's the case, get a new one. "There are a lot of scales now that have huge digital read-outs," says Susan Moores, RD, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

  • Pay attention to how your clothes fit, Moore says. If your pants are suddenly getting loose and baggy, don't ignore it and just tighten your belt. Or if your wedding band keeps sliding off, don't just move it to another finger. These could be signs that you're no longer keeping a healthy weight.

  • Look for changes in your eating habits. Although they might be subtle, you should look out for warning signs. "Think about how your appetite might have changed," Moores tells WebMD. "If you used to be someone who really looked forward to breakfast, but now you just have a glass of juice, that could be the sign of a problem."

Since it's often hard for people to pay attention to these details on their own, especially when they're coping with an illness, it's important to get help from the people around you -- family, friends, or caretakers.

What Puts People at Risk of Unintentional Weight Loss?

Any illness that affects your appetite, digestion, mobility, or energy level can put you at risk of losing too much weight. Many types of cancer -- such as cancer of the throat, jaw, mouth, or colon -- can have a direct impact on your ability to eat. But researchers believe that any type of cancer can cause your metabolism to speed up, meaning that you'll need to eat more calories just to maintain your weight. Cancer treatments -- medication, radiation, and chemotherapy -- can also cause a loss of appetite, nausea, and diarrhea. These side effects can cut down on your nutritional intake, Lloyd says.

Medical conditions can also impose physical barriers to good health. If you've got severe arthritis, you know that something as simple as opening a jar or a box of cereal can be next to impossible. Getting out of the house can be tough.

"When you have to start depending on others for your basic needs, like groceries, you're at increased risk of malnutrition," Lloyd tells WebMD. The isolation that can come with some illnesses can be a risk in itself, sometimes leading to depression.