Unintended Weight Loss

By Jacqueline Larson M.S., R.D.N.

Unintended Weight Loss

Research shows that the elderly and critically ill are at risk for malnutrition. During times of illness or stress, eating well nourishing the body with proper nutrition is key component to healing. When a person does not eat adequate amounts of food it can lead to an unintended weight loss. Without proper nutrition, the body does not function properly and can lead to additional health problems.

In the elderly population as many as 15-20% of the population has an unintentional weight loss during their lifetime. A undesirable weight loss as defined as more than a 5 % reduction in body weight within six to 12 months. Losing weight too rapidly during illness is associated with increased risks for more health problems. As a result, unintentional weight loss can lead to functional decline in activities of daily living abilities.

Causes of Unintended Weight Loss

Various medical conditions can lead to undernutrition and undesirable weight loss. These conditions include but are not limited to cancer, congestive heart failure, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s Disease, dementia, burns, and Huntington chorea. In other cases, psychological factors may also contribute to decreased food intake. Examples may include social deprivation and loneliness, depression, grief, anxiety, nausea and reduced appetite. Along with medical and psychological circumstances, physical factors such as arthritis, chewing or swallowing difficulty, dry mouth, dental problems, taste alterations and fatigue can also contribute to malnutrition.

Preventing Unintended Weight Loss

Malnutrition is a result of inadequate food and nutrient intake. As long as there is adequate appetite and sufficient resources to purchase and prepare food, most malnourished individuals can be obtain adequate nutrition with diet alone. By maximizing oral intakes one can improve overall health, and improve nutritional status The best way to start is by offering high calorie and high protein meals and snacks.


During times of illness, Sarcopenia can develop. Sarcopenia causes an accelerated loss muscle mass and function. The rate at which the muscle loss occurs, depends on nutrition, activity level and medical conditions. Also known as frailty syndrome, sarcopenia can lead to reduced quality of life, fractures, and disabilities. An effective way to manage, sarcopenia is through nutrition and exercise. A high quality, protein enriched meal plan is recommended to improve systems. A healthy diet and muscle strengthening can improve the quality of life.

Treatment of Unintended Weight Loss

The best treatment of unintended weight loss focuses on the underlying cause. A multidisciplinary team including, dentists, speech pathologist, occupational therapeutics, physical therapist, dietitians, nurses, medical doctor, and social service workers should work together to determine the best course of treatment. Common strategies for unintentional weight loss in older adults are dietary changes, environmental modifications, nutritional supplements, flavor enhancers, and appetite stimulants. 

Dietary modifications may include incorporating personal preferences, softer food consistency to accommodate for chewing or swallowing disabilities, and assistance with feeding.  Nutritional supplements are available commercial and home-made varieties. Nutritional supplements should be high in calories and protein to support and prevent weight loss. Supplements are often used to increase calories and protein.

References available upon request.

Homemade Nutritional Supplement

A great way to offer, homemade nutritional supplements is to use recipes you can easily make at home with common household ingredients. As a result, homemade nutritional supplements are often less costly than commercial products. Ranking higher in acceptability, homemade nutritional supplements are often superior in taste. In our book, “High Calorie High Protein Supplements” you will find over 75 delicious recipes that taste great. The cookbooks is a “Food First ” approach to increasing high quality nourishment. Drinking the same supplement over and over again can lead to poor acceptance. With such a wide variety of recipes to choose from you, never get tired of the same old nourishment . As an added bonus, the book also includes nutritional “add ins”. The nutritional “add ins ” are a list of common foods you find in your pantry, you can add to foods to increase calories, protein, and taste. All supplements and nutritional “add ins” include a complete nutritional analysis.

Available through Amazon.

Commercial Nutritional Supplements

Commercial nutritional supplements are also a great resource of nutrition. The best supplements are the supplements that are well accepted. There are many commercial supplements readily available. Prepared supplements are convenient and easy to store. Here are some of our favorites:

Original Vanilla
High Protein Vanilla
High Protein and Calorie Vanilla
Original Chocolate
High Protein Chocolate
High Protein and Calorie Chocolate
Original Strawberry
High Protein Strawberry
High Calorie and Protein Strawberry

Original Coffee Flavored
High Protein Coffee Flavored
High Calorie and Protein Coffee Flavored
Original Vanilla
High Protein Vanilla
Very High Calorie and Protein Vanilla
Original Chocolate
High Protein Chocolate
High Calorie and Protein
Boost Glucose Control
High Protein Coffee
Plant based, no dairy, gluten, soy or nuts Vanilla
Vanilla Peptamen
Vanilla High Calorie
Plant based, no dairy, gluten, soy or nuts Chocolate
High Calorie Vanilla
Ensure Clear with Protein Mixed Berry
Ensure Clear with Protein Apple

Jacqueline Larson M.S., R.D.N. and Associates