The classification of obesity as a disease may make being thin seem healthy and a lot more desirable to some, but this really isn't the case. As appealing as the idea of being underweight may be to someone struggling to get rid of excess weight, the fact is that thinness or being underweight can be just as deadly as severe obesity. While our junk food obsession has turned obesity into an epidemic, our obsession with celebrities and skinny models has severely warped our perceptions of beauty and the ideal figure. In such an environment the problem of being underweight and thin is often not recognized as such and is in fact exacerbated by social pressures and prevailing attitudes.
The term 'underweight' in the medical context is used to describe the human body if one's weight is below what is considered the average healthy weight. While the perfect body weight varies greatly depending on various factors, some of which cannot really be calculated, the Body Mass Index or BMI calculation is the best way to determine your ideal weight. If your BMI is below 18.5 it means that you are most likely underweight.
The drastic rise in obesity, including childhood obesity in the last century set off alarm bells and rightly so. Unfortunately, our interest in weight loss and fitness assumed obsessive proportions only compounded by popular culture's idealization of skinny models and celebrities. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the risk of mortality increases greatly in individuals with a BMI below 18.5. This risk of mortality is in fact even higher in underweight individuals as compared to in their overweight counterparts. Malnutrition and being underweight typically go hand in hand and an individual who is underweight is most likely to also suffer from malnutrition. Food is important not just as a source of energy, but also as a source of nutrients. Deficiencies in fuel or fat and in nutritional intake can severely compromise the functioning of various bodily processes and the organs.
If you are naturally underweight and have been following a healthy diet however, you most likely have nothing to worry about. Some of us are simply genetically predisposed to being underweight. In other cases however, it may be because of some underlying undiagnosed health condition. Sudden weight loss or weight loss that occurs without any known cause could also be indicative of some medical condition and should be medically investigated.
Symptoms of Underweight
Malnutrition is the most significant and worrying symptom of being underweight and it could contribute to various other symptoms associated with being underweight:
- Frequent and inexplicable fatigue
- General malaise and a decline in stamina
- Lowered resistance
In children you may also notice symptoms like lethargy and listlessness. The problem is of particular concern in kids and teenagers as it can have a significant impact on growth and development. Some of these symptoms can cause a worsening of the condition, as low energy levels and fatigue in kids and teenagers would result in less physical activity and a loss of interest in sporting activities. While physical activity is essential for us to stay fit and healthy, it's just as important to kids as it ensures proper physical growth and the development of muscle strength.
Causes of Underweight
The causes of being underweight and/or malnourished vary greatly not just among different people, but also among different populations. In most parts of the developing world and in economically disadvantaged communities poor access to nutritious food is the main cause of the problem, while there are various social and psychological causes that are likely to be responsible for the problem in the developed world. In some cases individuals may remain 'thin' despite their healthy food consumption because of genetic factors, but in other cases the problem may develop on account of an undiagnosed or untreated health condition or disease. Gastrointestinal diseases can severely impair one's ability to absorb nutrients and the problem could also result from mental disorders or physical diseases like tuberculosis, cancer and hyperthyroidism. Eating disorders like anorexia nervosa are also a common cause for being underweight and can result in severe malnutrition. If neglected, most of these conditions will prove fatal.
In addition to these causes, some individuals may also be underweight and suffer from accompanying symptoms because of obsessive behavior when it comes to exercising and sports training. While physical activity is essential and extremely beneficial, you need to make sure that your diet supports your levels of physical activity. Burning more calories than you consume will eventually lead to low body weight. Intestinal parasites are another common cause for low body weight, despite normal eating habits. This is especially common in developing countries and areas with poor levels of hygiene and among kids and possibly teenagers.
Remedies for Underweight
Being underweight can pose a serious health risk and should be treated very seriously. While home care can help with recovery, it is not necessarily an effective strategy to deal with the problem. Medical care is absolutely essential for an accurate diagnosis and for any lasting result. In situations where the condition is brought on by other diseases or health disorders, this is especially important, as no amount of intervention with dietary or lifestyle modifications will help if the underlying cause is not addressed.
Quite naturally the most effective and important way to counter the problem of being underweight would be by boosting your calorie intake through healthy foods. Eating junk foods that are high in calories will only do you more harm; you need to eat smart. Herbal supplements may help to stimulate appetite, but it would be a good idea to consult with your health care provider before trying any kind of supplements. Dietary supplements may also help, especially if malnutrition is severe. In this scenario, you would need to consult with a nutritionist or dietician too. Medical marijuana has also been found to help in some circumstances with appetite loss, and with certain psychological causes, but this will again depend on the diagnosis and on state laws on marijuana.
Diet for Underweight
The simplest way to gain weight through your diet is by boosting your calorie intake. Healthy foods with high caloric values include:
- Dried fruits
- Dairy products like cheese
In the context of nutrition from fluids try and include:
- Whole milk
- Milk Shakes
When an individual is so underweight as to require medical attention, it's imperative to make dietary changes based on consultations with the health care provider and nutritionists or dieticians. Each individual's requirements are different and a nutritionist will be able to provide the patient with a specialized food plan based on each individual's needs.
Here are some general food tips to help gain weight (Make sure that you consult with your doctor before trying any of these tips as the presence of other health risks or conditions could make some of these counterproductive):
Be liberal with the Butter! You can apply butter or trans-fat free margarine over your breakfast toast or bread lavishly. Whether it's a sandwich you're having or a fried egg with bread or toast, there's no harm in dousing it in some butter. You could even stir fry vegetables for your meals and douse them with some butter.
Look for Whole Fat Dairy Products:Low fat dairy products may be the healthy choice for most, but whole milk and whole milk products like cheese and yogurt are a better option for some of us. Use whole milk with breakfast cereal, or use full fat cheese with your meals or in foods instead of using regular or low fat cheese varieties. For those with a sweet tooth ice-creams can be a great addition as well.
Opt for Health Oils. Modifying your cooking style to include foods that can be fried with heart healthy oils like olive or canola may be a good idea. These could even be used as a dressing for most salads. You can even add nuts like almonds, cashews and pistachios to your salads or other dishes.
Pile it on! Try to increase your serving size gradually. You could start out by simply increasing your food intake at breakfast, and gradually try doing the same with other meals like lunch, snacks and dinner. Again, it's important that you discuss this with your doctors and a nutritionist as increasing food intake can subject your digestive system to considerable stress and how this practice is incorporated will largely depend on each individual's health and physical well being at the time.
While the foods and drinks you include in your diet are important, it's just as important that you avoid certain foods as they can reduce appetite, while some simply offer no nutritional value. These include caffeinated drinks like tea and coffee, as well as energy drinks. When grocery shopping, try to avoid picking up any of the fat-free/low-fat or low-carb food products.
Suggestion for Underweight
Lifestyle changes are extremely important to support and often to derive any benefits from dietary changes. Exercising is absolutely essential as body mass can be increased through muscle hypertrophy. Several studies have highlighted the benefits of weight lifting exercises for individuals with low body weight, as they help improve muscle tone, bone mineral density and weight gain.
- Waaler HT. Height, weight and mortality. The Norwegian experience. Acta Med Scand Suppl. 1984;679:1-56. PubMed PMID: 6585126.
Coin, A.; G. Sergi, P. Benincà, L. Lupoli, G. Cinti, L. Ferrara, G. Benedetti, G. Tomasi, C. Pisent and G. Enzi (2000). "Bone Mineral Density and Body Composition in Underweight and Normal Elderly Subjects". Osteoporosis International 11 (12).
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