The term underweight refers to a human who is considered to be under a healthy weight. The definition is usually made with reference to the body mass index (BMI). A BMI of under 18.5 is usually referred to as underweight. It is important to note that the BMI is a statistical estimate and some individuals classified as underweight may be perfectly healthy. In fact, caloric restriction may be a viable means of increasing the lifespan, and it can easily lead to a BMI of less than 18.5. This medical definition of underweight may differ from other uses of the term, such as those based on attractiveness.
The most common cause of a person being underweight is primarily malnutrition caused by the unavailability of adequate food, which can run as high as 50% in parts of sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia. The effects of primary malnutrition may be amplified by disease; even easily treatable diseases such as diarrhea may lead to death.
In the presence of adequate food resources, underweight is generally the result of mental or physical disease. There are hundreds of possible medical causes for excessive weight loss or a person being underweight. Some of the more prevalent include:
- Anorexia Nervosa
- Bulimia Nervosa
- Cancer Treatment
- Type 1 Diabetes
- Anxiety and depressive disorders
- Drug abuse
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Malfunctioning digestive organs
- Dental pain
- Obsessive over-training
- Stimulant use
The most immediate problem with underweight is that it might be secondary to, and/or symptomatic of, an underlying disease. Unexplained weight loss requires professional medical diagnosis.
Underweight can also be a primary causative condition. Severely underweight individuals may have poor physical stamina and a weak immune system, leaving them open to infection. According to Robert E. Black of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, "Underweight status ... and micronutrient deficiencies also cause decreases in immune and non-immune host defenses, and should be classified as underlying causes of death if followed by infectious diseases that are the terminal associated causes." People who are malnutrative underweight raise special concerns, as not only gross caloric intake may be inadequate, but also intake and absorption of other vital nutrients, especially essential amino acids and micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals.
Underweight is an established risk factor for osteoporosis even for young people. This is a particular insidious consequence, because the affected persons do not notice the danger, they can feel fit and may be brilliant for example in endurance sports. After the occurrence of first spontaneous fractures the damage is often already irreversible.
If an individual is severely underweight to the point where problems with his or her health develop, it may be necessary for the person to make a concentrated effort to gain weight. The treatment for an underweight individual is to increase the food energy intake so that more food energy is consumed than is being used as work. It is usually suggested that weight training is also to be undertaken to increase muscle mass.
If weight loss results from a disease, resolving the illness and consuming adequate calories can bring many underweight individuals to a healthy body weight.
- National Heart Lung and Blood Institute  Accessed July 23, 2007.
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