Is Being Underweight Just as Dangerous as Being Overweight?

underweightWhile many people struggle with weight loss, about 10% of the population has just as much difficulty with weight gain.

In order to gain weight, more energy needs to be consumed than is used. Approximately an extra 500 calories a day for an entire week will increase your body weight by a pound.

You’re considered underweight if you have a body mass index (BMI) of less than 18. BMI is a measurement to determine whether your weight is healthy for your height. An ideal range is having a BMI between 18.5 and 25.

Just as being overweight and obese has many associated health implications, being underweight also puts you at risk of several health ailments.

Being underweight means you are likely malnourished because of limited dietary intake or decreased absorption ability. Therefore, you are missing out on several essential nutrients, such as amino acids, vitamins, and minerals. This puts you at an increased risk of osteoporosis, anemia, and a compromised immune system, which increases your risk of infection.

If you’re underweight, you may also notice hair loss, hair thinning, and muscle loss. Being underweight can also interfere with hormone regulation, which can lead to difficulties conceiving a baby or carrying it to term.

So what would cause you to become underweight?

Illness, side effects from medications or treatments, emotional distress, and depression can lead to a suppressed appetite, and thus a decreased intake of food.  These lead to weight loss—and gaining it back can be quite a challenge.

What can you do about it?

It’s important to stay healthy, whether you’re trying to lose weight or gain weight, so here are some important tips to keep in mind:

Make every calorie count. Don’t fill up on junk foods and soda—those won’t allow you to stay healthy while gaining weight. The empty calories will fill you up quickly and will replace nutrient-dense foods.

Because of a lack of appetite, you are more likely to skip meals and eat smaller portion sizes. This can lead to diminished hunger cues, which will make these cues unreliable.

Eat three meals and three snacks daily. Stick to this schedule.

Try to drink between meals and at snack times, so that you don’t fill up on drinks during meals.

Each meal should have a protein choice: choose fattier meats and leave the skin on your poultry. Eat higher fat cheese (at least 20%) and yogurt (over two percent). You can find protein in meat, fish, poultry, tofu, beans, legumes, cheese, and nuts.

Add dips and dressings to your fruits and vegetables. Choose starchy choices, such as corn and potatoes, and enjoy avocados (these are higher in calories). Add a fat-based dressing oil or cream to your salads. Stir-fry vegetables in vegetable oil. Use peanut butter, nut butter, hummus, bean dip, or guacamole as a dipping sauce. Mix your fruits and vegetables with yogurt, cheese, or nuts.

Drink your calories. Make smoothies that are milk- or yogurt-based (with at least two percent fat). Drink milk (over two percent) or juices more often. Add higher-fat milks and creams to your coffee, cereals, or even your soup. Consider adding a protein powder to your milk or smoothie to increase your protein and calorie intake. Choose diet drinks, coffee, tea, and water less often; these have minimal or no calories.

Remember: consistency is key. You don’t want to skip meals or eat meals that are not nutritious. Add fats such as nut butter, olive oil, cream, or flaxseed whenever possible. Consider a protein or energy bar as a snack. Most importantly, be generous with portion sizes. If you are hungry, eat more, and don’t worry about eating too much.

“Nutrition Care Manual,” American Dietetics Association: Chicago: ADA; 2009, last accessed May 12, 2013.
Reese, M.A.T.B., “Underweight: A Heavy Concern,” Today’s Dietitian, January 2008;, last accessed May 14, 2013.