By Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD
WebMD Expert Column
For the majority of Americans, “envious” is the word that comes to mind for anyone who needs to gain weight. Most people are on the other end of the scale, desperately trying to lose weight.
But for people who struggle to maintain a healthy weight or are trying to gain weight, it can be a real challenge. Reasons for needing to gain weight include health issues, lack of appetite, fueling sports, building muscle, or just trying to overcome skinny genes.
Being a little underweight is not necessarily a problem, says American Dietetic Association president-elect Sylvia Escott-Stump, RD.
“If you are comfortable, able to function and exercise, weighing a little less than your ideal body weight is not a problem and studies show it is associated with good health outcomes,” Escott-Stump says.
However, if you want or need to gain weight, do it the healthy way — which is not about bellying up to an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Calories Count, But So Do Nutrients
Focus on healthy foods to gain weight, because even though you have more leeway with calories, good nutrition still rules.
“Weight gain requires eating calorie-rich but also nutrient-rich foods — not just high-calorie foods with lots of fat, sugar, or empty calories,” says Alice Bender, RD, nutrition communications manager for the American Institute for Cancer Research.
The goal is to choose foods that are packed with vitamins, minerals, nutrients, and calories so each bite is loaded with good nutrition.
“Start with nutritious foods and then wherever you can, enrich the foods with additional ingredients like yogurt, fruit, nuts, and healthy fats,” Escott-Stump says.
Eat Often to Gain Weight
Regardless of why you want to gain weight, eating meals or substantial snacks (think mini-meals) more often is the way to pack more calories into the day.
“Try to eat six times a day, with each meal (or at least three of them) containing protein, starch, vegetable[s], and fat,” says sports nutritionist and Georgia State University professor emeritus Christine Rosenbloom, PhD, RD.
A sample meal would include a turkey sandwich on whole-grain bread with mayonnaise and tomatoes and a fruit smoothie.
Eat often and choose wisely, and you can expect to gain an average of half a pound to 1 pound per week.
Gaining Muscle Mass
“Athletes who want to bulk up need to add sufficient calories and protein along with proper strength training to make sure they gain weight in the right places,” Rosenbloom says.
She advises athletes to eat protein-rich snacks such as a high-protein energy bar, low-fat chocolate milk, or a protein shake immediately after weight training to give muscles the necessary post-workout fuel.
Rosenbloom instructs athletes to snack on high-calorie, high-protein foods and beverages, such as a protein shake with two scoops of whey protein before bedtime.
Avid exercisers who are not trying to build muscle mass also need frequent healthy snacks to fuel their physical activity and to maintain or gain weight.
Gaining Weight After an Illness
Weight loss is often associated with illness because of a lack of appetite or certain disease conditions. During illness, most diets are inadequate in calories, protein, vitamins, and minerals — all the nutrients you need to get back to good nutritional status.
Drinking smoothies or meal replacement drinks, eating egg dishes, and choosing bland, mild foods is usually the best diet prescription while transitioning back to a healthy diet. These foods are easy to digest, loaded with good nutrition, and simple to prepare.
“In addition to all the other important nutrients, focus on getting enough protein, which is very important in recovery after illness,” Bender says.
Aim for about 5 ounces of lean meat, fish, or poultry and a few servings of dairy, whole grains, eggs, and legumes to make sure your diet has enough protein. Bender suggests avoiding raw fish if your immune system is compromised.
Tips to Whet Your Appetite
When eating just doesn’t appeal to you, there are some tricks of the trade that can help stimulate your appetite.
Taking a little walk before eating is one of the many ways to help fire up your appetite. When you are not hungry, choosing your favorite comfort foods may help. So can jazzing up foods with spices and herbs to enhance flavor.
Liquids, including water, can fill you up. So drink liquids separately to help make room for nourishing foods.
The sweet taste of fruit can rouse your appetite, especially when blended into an easy-to-tolerate smoothie.
Foods That Pack a Punch
Foods highest in calories and nutrients are foods with fats, especially plant fats. Plant fats such as nuts, peanuts, seeds, peanut butter, almond butter, avocados, hummus, and oils are great sources of healthy fats loaded with nutrients and calories.
Animal fats provide nutrients and the same amount of calories as plant fats, but they also contain saturated fats, which can increase LDL (bad) cholesterol.
“First choose plant fats and smaller amounts of lower-fat dairy and lean meat animal fats, so your weight gain efforts don’t increase risk of heart disease,” Bender says.
“If you have a normal cholesterol level, you can enjoy extra calories by choosing full-fat dairy products,” Escott-Stump says. For instance, pair cheese with fruit and whole-grain crackers for a boost of protein, calories, calcium, and vitamin D.
Drink high-calorie juices instead of water and choose high-calorie condiments such as mayonnaise, ranch, thousand island, and Caesar salad dressings, Rosenbloom suggests.
Meal replacement drinks and smoothies are very convenient. To pump up their calories, add fruits, powdered milk, or soft silken tofu, Bender says.
Eat nuts by the handful or sprinkle them on top of soups, salads, cereal, desserts, and casseroles for added protein, fiber, healthy fat, and calories. Granola, loaded with nuts and dried fruits, is a concentrated source of nutritious calories, especially when eaten with full-fat Greek-style yogurt, which is higher in protein.
Foods That Pack a Punch continued…
Dried fruits are a concentrated source of calories that can be tossed on salads, yogurts, cereals, desserts, and trail mixes — or eaten alone.
Potatoes are a great vehicle for toppings. Or, when you cook potatoes, add in flavored oils, milk, cheese, chili, vegetables, and beans.
Fried foods are fine on occasion, but “a better choice than deep-fried foods would be stir-fried foods in healthy oils,” Bender says.
Another easy way to add calories is to drizzle olive or canola oil on vegetables, salads, whole grains, soups, casseroles, and stews.
Looking for fast food options? Rosenbloom gives a nod to plain cheese pizza, and sub sandwiches made with lean meat.