Unexplained weight loss, or losing weight without trying — particularly if it's significant or ongoing — may be a sign of a medical disorder.

The point at which unexplained weight loss becomes a medical concern is not exact. But many health care providers agree that a medical evaluation is called for if you lose more than 5% of your weight in 6 to 12 months, especially if you're an older adult. For example, a 5% weight loss in someone who is 160 pounds (72 kilograms) is 8 pounds (3.6 kilograms). In someone who is 200 pounds (90 kilograms), it's 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms).

Your weight is affected by your calorie intake, activity level and overall health. Your ability to absorb nutrients from the food you eat also affects your weight. Economic and social factors also may play a role.

If you're losing weight without trying and you're concerned about it, consult your doctor — as a rule of thumb, losing more than 5 percent of your weight within six to 12 months may indicate a problem. If you're an older adult with many or more-serious underlying health issues, even a smaller amount of weight loss may be significant.

Your doctor will work with you to try to determine what's causing the weight loss. At first that will involve a thorough history, a physical examination and basic laboratory testing. Imaging scans to look for hidden cancers are not usually helpful unless some other clue points in that direction.

Sometimes, if the basic evaluation is negative, watchful waiting for one to six months is a reasonable next step. You may need a special diet to prevent further weight loss or to regain lost pounds.

May 18, 2021