Five Nutritional Strategies to Gain Weight

By: Leo Desforges

No, that’s not a typo.  In this month’s blog, I will share my top five ways to gain weight as healthfully as possible.  Over the next few paragraphs, I hope to prove that this article is applicable to everyone, not just those who would like to gain weight.

Why the heck would I do this when most fitness/nutrition bloggers are releasing a plethora of weight-loss articles?

One: There are still plenty of folks in this country who are underweight and need some healthy strategies to gain some muscle and fat.  Typically, young children and hyperactive athletes fall into this category, but there are certainly some adults in this category as well.  I’ve spent years working with underweight high school athletes who are looking to gain weight not only to perform better at their sport but also to increase injury resistance (through elevated muscle mass and overall body weight) and self confidence.  My general approach is to increase not only quantity of food consumption but also quality.  That way, when the appropriate amount of weight has been gained, one can more easily transition into a weight maintenance phase.


Two: As always, I hope to stir up some interesting conversation about nutrition and fitness, and I hope that this article will get folks talking.  As always, please use the comments section!


Three: By exploring a few of the best ways to gain weight, I will essentially be creating a list of “what not to do when trying to lose weight” as well.  The following five tips (generally) ARE NOT RECOMMENDED if weight loss is a priority.

  1. Eat more than your body tells you to eat: If you’ve been trying to gain weight for months and failing, you are not eating enough.  This should sound obvious, but it bears emphasis and is the most important factor in effective weight gain.  A lack of “hunger” is often at the root of the problem.  Learning to eat past the point of hunger is key to gaining weight.  I often tell my athletes to eat what they would normally eat at meals and then add 25% more on top of it even if they’re not hungry.  Over multiple months, we can continue to bump this percentage up if needed.  It’s not often “fun” for folks to eat this much, but it’s necessary. Another useful strategy is to use a food diary to track daily caloric intake.  Once you have tracked for a week, take the average number of calories per day (let’s say it comes out to 2,000 calories per day, hypothetically) and add 500 calories per day on top of that, making your target 2,500 calories per day. Try that for three weeks and observe changes in the scale, the mirror and your energy levels. If the extra 500 calories a day don’t help, bump to 1000 extra (3,000/day), and observe the effect.  Most folks who “can never gain weight” are simply not eating enough!
  2. Eat less fibrous foods: As much as fiber and leafy greens are often touted as being “good for us” foods (and I believe they are), too much of them can sabotage a weight gain plan.  Fiber and leafy vegetables tend to be very filling without providing many of the calories necessary for weight gain.  I recommend minimizing (but not eliminating) low calorie leafy greens and salads.  Chose instead potatoes, yams, beets, peas, corn and even carrots with extra butter or olive oil for added calories.  A small salad should be okay. When it comes to grains, minimizing high fiber grains can be very helpful, too.  White rice is less filling than brown rice, for instance.
  3. Drink some calories: One of the simplest ways to gain weight without feeling overly full is to add liquid calories.  Eating five whole meals per day can be tough, and high-calorie drinks are convenient and typically not that filling (which allows one to eat more).  My favorite options are milk (preferably organic, full fat/whole and grass-fed if possible), 100% juice and homemade weight-gain shakes.  (I do not recommend store-bought weight-gain products.)  Homemade shakes often contain a scoop or two of chocolate whey protein powder, milk, frozen banana, peanut butter and maybe some heavy cream if you really need to bump calories up.  Certainly there are many other variations, but this one is popular and high in calories with a minimum of junk food.  Adding 3-10 cups of whole milk per day boosts calories, carbs, fats and protein with almost no effort while helping to hydrate.  (If you do not tolerate dairy well, this might not be a good idea!)
  4. Eat all day; don’t skip meals: Begin eating when you get up, and don’t stop ‘til bedtime.  I think five large meals per day (breakfast, lunch, midafternoon, dinner and before bed) are the absolute minimum for folks trying to gain weight:.  Skipping meals is not recommended as you are missing opportunities to get extra calories.  Even if you’re not hungry, eat.  Prepare your meals ahead of time, and make them as tasty as possible by adding cheese, sauces, etc.
  5. Eat plenty of fats AND carbs: Both low fat and low carbohydrate diets have become popular. Neither is appropriate for the individual who is looking to gain weight.  Limiting either carbs or fat will limit your overall caloric intake, which we are trying to avoid.  My favorite carbohydrate sources for weight gain are white rice and peeled potatoes (white and sweet).  Peel the potatoes to minimize fiber and fullness.  Fill in the carbohydrate needs with fruits, some higher calorie veggies and occasional “treats” such as pastas, breads, ice cream and pizza.  For fat sources, I recommend high quality meats, poultry (dark meat preferable to light meat), whole eggs, fatty fish, cheese, full fat dairy, olive oil, coconut oil, dark chocolate, avocados, olives and nuts/seeds (including nut butters).  I never recommend deep fried foods as the oils used and the temperatures involved make for a low cost/benefit ratio.

There may not be a need to use all of these strategies at once.  For some, merely applying one of these ideas with some consistency will be enough to get the scale number moving upwards.  Others will need to apply all five with brutal consistency and very hard work to see gains.  Eating far more than you want to eat is NOT fun even though it may seem like it at first.

For most, gaining 3-8 pounds a month is the fastest I would advise.  Gaining slowly tends not only to be easier on the body and mind but also tends to minimize excessive fat gain.

Everyone looking to gain weight should be doing 2-3 hours a week of heavy resistance exercise (lifting weights properly) to maximize muscle gain over fat gain.  (If for some reason you only want to gain extra body fat and not muscle, feel free to ignore this advice.)

Lastly, gaining weight is very stressful for the body.  You are essentially forcing your body to do something uncomfortable even if you are doing so with a healthy end goal.  Try to rest/sleep well and stay well hydrated.  Additionally, it may be helpful to set a 3-4 month weight gain goal and then spend another 3 months just maintaining that weight.  This allows the body to acclimatize to its new (heavier) set point and gives the digestive system a bit of a rest.

For those looking to gain weight or help a child do so, I hope this article finds you well.  For all the rest of us who are looking to either maintain an already healthy bodyweight or lose some additional fat, I hope this article will give a bit of insight on a few things NOT to do with any frequency


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