Many – perhaps most – people have tried to drop a few pounds at one time or another. But not everyone needs to lose weight.
In fact, some people could benefit from gaining weight. About 1.6% of the U.S. population over the age of 20, for instance, is considered underweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If you’re among that group, it’s important to know that while there are many ways to simply add pounds, not all approaches promote overall health and wellness.
Why You Might Need to Gain Weight
In a culture that reveres thinness, it might seem strange to think that anyone would ever want to gain weight. However, there are many health, aesthetic and psychological reasons for doing so. For instance, some individuals who have active lifestyles may want to increase their body mass to boost their strength or activity levels. Others shed weight as a result of medications, such as certain kinds of chemotherapy treatments.
For example, individuals with Crohn’s disease (a chronic autoimmune disorder of the intestinal tract) often have difficulty putting on and maintaining weight.
In addition, people with a history of an eating disorder and those who are recovering from another chronic illness may sometimes be listed as underweight. These individuals may need to bulk up to avoid additional health challenges.
No matter why you’re underweight, you may be at a higher risk for certain health conditions, including:
- Developmental delays in adolescents.
- Heart palpitations.
- Lung tissue complications.
- Fracture risk.
- Early death.
Gaining Weight Healthily
Fortunately, with some sound strategizing, it’s possible to develop an eating regimen that can help you gain pounds without harming your health.
“The key to gaining weight is to consume more calories than you expend for body functions and physical activity.”
This is called a caloric surplus, the flip side to the tried-and-true caloric deficit that nutritionists talk about for losing weight.
To start, you’ll need to calculate your daily caloric needs. These needs are different for each person based on their height, current weight, exercise level, age, sex and medical conditions. It’s best to chat with a doctor or nutritionist to determine your ideal daily intake. Once you know what your target daily total should be, increase your intake “modestly” by about 250 to 500 calories per day.
If that surplus of 250 to 500 calories looks familiar, it’s because so many nutritionists and weight loss doctors have recommended cutting your daily intake by that same amount when you’re trying to lose weight. The key on both the weight loss and weight gain sides is to make slow and steady changes so your body can adapt. Sharp changes in caloric intake can affect your metabolism, but a gentle approach is more sustainable.
Strategies for Gaining Weight
1. Don’t turn to junk food or quit working out
While it might be tempting to just reach for a carton of ice cream and a family-size bag of potato chips when you’re trying to gain weight, this is probably the worst way to add pounds. You’ll be adding foods that don’t provide the nutrients your body needs to build muscle and create a sustainable change in body weight. Eating foods that are considered ‘unhealthy’ can cause adverse health effects, including high cholesterol or high triglycerides
2. Consume energy- and nutrient-dense foods
This can be challenging when considering the sheer volume of food needed. However, there are foods – such as healthy fats – that are high in nutrients and calories. Such foods include avocado, fatty fish (rainbow trout, salmon, sardines and tuna), nuts and nut butters, seeds and seed butters, oils (olive oil, avocado oil and flaxseed oil).
You may also try adding flaxseeds or chia seeds to smoothies, salads, casseroles or yogurt, use avocado as a topping to toast, eggs and salads, or you can easily add it to smoothies. Other examples include adding peanut butter or hemp hearts to oatmeal or onto fruit and sautéing vegetables with olive oil.
Other option is adding protein powders to smoothies, oatmeal or drinks. But before you add such supplements to your diet, consult with a sports dietitian, a registered dietitian or other health care professional.
3. Don’t skip meals
Overnight, our bodies expend the energy we’ve stored up as glycogen to pump our hearts, expand our lungs and basically keep us alive.
Therefore, when we wake up, it is important to replenish the energy used overnight with a balanced breakfast. Skipping breakfast extends the fasting period, causing our bodies to rely more heavily on energy from stored fat and muscle tissue.
This makes gaining weight challenging and may actually contribute to weight loss. Breakfast is also an opportunity to consume a good percentage of your overall daily caloric needs to be in a caloric surplus by the end of the day.
If you’re inclined to skip breakfast because you feel sick if you eat first thing in the morning, try drinking fruit juice or low-fat milk.
4. Eat frequently.
Aim to eat every two to three hours. This will help you achieve your overall daily caloric needs while consistently refueling the energy used up for daily functions and physical activity. Additionally, this will support muscle repair and growth. Our muscles are breaking down and rebuilding constantly. When we consistently fuel this process, we can optimize our muscle tissue growth.
When snacking, aim to pair a quality carbohydrate, such as whole grains, fruits or vegetables, with a protein. By doing this, the carbohydrates can restore energy while the protein can help rebuild muscle tissue.
5. Drink healthy calories.
Consuming nutrient-packed, calorie-containing drinks can help you reach your healthy weight gain goals. Try drinks such as 100% fruit juice, chocolate milk, low-fat milk, protein shakes, smoothies, sports drinks, vitamin water, lattes made with milk, kefir or yogurt drinks.
If you usually make fruit smoothies, add Greek yogurt or milk as a base to your smoothie. Both of these not only increase calories, but add nutrients to the diet by providing healthy fats and extra protein.
6. Add healthy fats
Fat is the most calorically dense macronutrient, packing 9 calories per gram – that’s in contrast to the 4 calories per gram of carbohydrates and 4 calories per gram of protein. To boost your intake of healthy fats, try adding avocado to increase your caloric intake while also adding lots of other good nutrients, such as vitamins C, E, K and B6 as well as potassium and magnesium.
7. Add toppings
You can add cheese to sandwiches, veggies, salads, fruit slices and crackers, upping your caloric intake. If you’re lactose intolerant, stick to aged cheeses, such as cheddar, Parmesan, Swiss or feta, or try dairy-free cheese substitutes.
Other great toppings that add calories and nutrients include nuts and seeds like almonds, peanuts or walnuts. Nuts are a great addition because ¼ cup of almonds (one ounce) provides 165 calories, along with 3 grams fiber, 14 grams of fat and 6 grams of protein. Add nuts to oatmeal, granola bowls or salads for extra nutrients and calories
8. Fuel your workout
Always go into a workout with your glycogen (stored energy) stores full. Ideally you want to have a fully balanced meal three to four hours before your workout. This might be a sub sandwich on whole grain bread with turkey, or cheese and vegetables with a side of yogurt with fruit and granola. Then, about two hours before a workout, you want to try to have a “mini-meal,” such as a fruit smoothie or oatmeal with fruit. Finally, top off your energy stores with a fast-acting carbohydrate, such as applesauce, a granola bar, fruit or a sports drink. During your workout, aim to consume about 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates every 30 minutes to an hour. This can be a few gulps of a sports drink every 15 minutes.
9. Recover after exercising
The one to two hours after a workout is a critical time to fuel properly for healthy weight gain because your body is eager to replenish energy and is most active in rebuilding muscle tissue.
Aim to have a snack with 20 to 30 grams of protein and 75 to 125 grams of carbohydrates following a workout. Consume a fully balanced meal within two hours of a workout for proper recovery and to maximize your results.
- Whole-grain toast and peanut butter.
- Greek yogurt with berries and granola.
- Pita and hummus.
10. Indulge in a nighttime snack.
Take advantage of the time after dinner and before bedtime to add some nutrient-dense calories. Low-fat or nonfat dairy products are a great option for a nighttime snack. Full-fat dairy is typically high in unhealthy saturated fat, while low-fat dairy products have less saturated fat and contain protein. A banana with almond butter or a high-protein smoothie would be good choices. Dark chocolate is another sweet nighttime snack option.
Don’t Forget About Exercise
While your eating regimen is the main factor in putting on weight, engaging in certain types of exercise can help you reach your goals. Engaging regularly in weight or resistance training, for instance, can help you gain muscle and keep your body strong and toned.
If you’re trying to gain weight try these exercises:
- Rows or other upper-body pulling exercises.
- Kettlebell or dumbbell exercises.
You don’t need a pricey gym membership to engage in strength training. For example, you can place some heavy items in a backpack – hardcover books or bags of sand – then do squats while wearing the backpack. However, if you’re just starting out, it is recommended to consult with a certified trainer to make sure your form is correct so you can maximize your results and minimize the chances of injury.
When you’re getting strong, you’re going to build muscle. There’s no way to get strong without building muscle.
Last but not least, BE PATIENT.
Weight gain should be gradual and sustainable. It’s essential to listen to your body, monitor your progress and make adjustments as needed.