Want to gain weight healthfully? It takes a combination of healthy, calorie-dense foods and resistance training to build lean body mass.
When it comes to your overall health, you often hear that you should work to “achieve and maintain a healthy body weight”. And when you hear that, it’s natural to think that it applies only to people who have extra weight to lose. But there are those who have the opposite weight problem – they struggle with trying to gain healthy body weight. And while plenty of overweight folks might be happy to trade places with those who struggle to gain, they should know that underweight people often find it just as hard to achieve their weight goals as those who are trying to lose. And, just as many overweight people do, those who feel skinny or scrawny may have issues with body image, or feel as if all they do is think about food.
Healthy weight gain takes time
Whenever weight change is the goal – whether it’s to lose or to gain- most people want quick results. But in either case, the process is usually fairly slow and gradual. In order for an underweight person to gain a pound in a week’s time, they need to eat an extra 500 calories above what they burn every single day – which is often easier said than done. And sometimes (in an attempt to speed the process along) people turn to unhealthy, high calorie foods – like donuts and French fries – that are loaded with fat and sugar. Aside from the fact that these foods don’t provide proper nutrition for an active body, they’re also not likely to lead to healthy weight gain.
Healthy foods for healthy weight gain
Gaining weight in a healthy way, then, requires more than simply eating more calories – you want to emphasize healthy foods that are also calorie-dense to ensure that you will ‘bulk up’ rather than simply ‘fatten up’. But, boosting calories alone – even from very healthy foods – could simply add more fat to your frame if you don’t couple it with resistance exercise. So gaining healthy lean body mass requires a one-two punch of healthy eating along with strength training.
It also helps to eat on a schedule – and to set aside some extra time to eat more often – in order to work in those extra calories. It does take some forward planning and a lot of patience, but with practice, you can achieve healthy weight gain. Here are some tips to help you.
How to gain weight in a healthy way
- Drink extra calories from fruit juices, low fat milk or soymilk. If fluids fill you up too much, have them in between meals, rather than with your food.
- Gradually increase portions. Whenever you’re able to serve yourself, add an extra spoonful or two of food to your plate to gradually increase the amount you eat. Most people eat whatever they are served, and this often works better than trying to eat a entire second helping.
- Add healthy fats to your vegetables. Use olive-oil vinaigrette on your salad, and add nuts, seeds, avocado or olives to salads and cooked vegetables.
- Choose calorie-dense whole grains. Cereal topped with milk or soy milk makes a good snack that isn’t too filling. The highest calorie cereals are dense and heavy – the box of cereal should feel heavy for its size when you pick it up. Look for cereals that get their extra calories from nuts, seeds and dried fruits rather than extra fat or sugar. You can boost the calories in hot cereals by cooking them in milk or soy milk – then stir in nuts or nut butter, dried fruit, seeds or mashed banana. Look for heavy, dense whole grain breads – they tend to have more calories per slice than ‘regular’ bread – and load up on foods like whole grain pasta, brown rice and quinoa.
- Adequate protein is important, but stick with lean proteins – fish and seafood, poultry, lean cuts of meat and vegetarian proteins such as beans and tofu – and increase calories by boosting your portion size, rather than relying on higher-calorie, fatty meats.
- Dried fruits have more calories than fresh fruit on a per-serving basis, and are good added to cold or hot cereal, trail mix, salads and smoothies – or just by the handful as a snack.
- Healthy snacking can help healthy weight gain. Trying to work in an extra 500 calories or more per day is easier if you include regular snacks. Aim for three meals and three snacks (mid-morning, mid-afternoon, after dinner) and try to space meals and snacks evenly. That way, there’s less of a risk that your snack will ruin your appetite for your next meal. A protein shake, a bowl of cereal with milk and fruit, a sandwich on whole grain bread, or a cup of bean soup are just some examples of healthy snack options.
Susan Bowerman is Director of Nutrition Training at Herbalife. She is a Registered Dietitian and a Board-Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics.