When a Healthy Weight Means Gaining

Weight scale

For the many people who struggle with too much weight, it is hard to believe that some people just do not weigh enough. But being underweight, like being overweight, increases the risk of certain diseases. Underweight people are more prone to nutrient deficiencies and disorders such as anemia, osteoporosis, muscle wasting, mental confusion, and physical fatigue.

If you need to put on some pounds to achieve a healthier weight, you will need a plan for gaining weight in a smart, healthy way.  You will want to choose high-calorie foods – main dishes as well as snacks – that also provide protein, vitamins, and minerals. (See the recommendations below). Be sure to eat three meals a day, every day, and add two or three snacks.

Just like some people need to count calories to lose weight, you will need to keep track of what you eat if you want to gain weight as well.  Keeping a food diary in the Motivation Alliance for a few weeks will help you learn more about your eating habits. It takes 3,500 calories to gain one pound. That means if you want to gain a pound a week, you will have to consume 500 additional calories each day. Take things slowly, giving your body time to adjust to the additional calories.  In contrast to studies that show that the body slows down its metabolism is you cut calories, there is little evidence that metabolism speeds up if you eat too much so 3500 extra calories really should put on a pound.

Of course, you don’t want to just put on body fat.  The good news is that overfeeding studies typically show that the body stores extra calories as both fat and muscle.  Nonetheless, you’ll still want to tip the balance toward the healthier muscle gain.  To do this, it is important to maintain a regular schedule of exercise.  Because you are looking to gain weight, you’ll want to go relatively light on aerobic exercise like running, cycling and elliptical.  That does not mean to avoid aerobic exercise altogether: a five to ten minute run, spin or elliptical session to start your workout is a great way to build cardiovascular capacity and to warm up the body – especially if you can work safely at a higher intensity.

NOTE: We strongly suggest that you click the “Readiness for Exercise” button in the “Self Awareness” area of the Alliance to fill out the questionnaire there.  It will help you understand whether you should have a physician’s clearance before starting an exercise program.  If you are particularly out of shape, have heart or other medical issues or are over 45, we strongly suggest that you speak with a physician before beginning a new exercise program!

So, what kind of exercise should you focus on?  Strength training exercises that build muscle.  The linked article can take you a long way toward understanding how to safely train for strength.  The side effect, given your new diet, will be a strong, healthy, athletic-looking body.  If you are at all worried that strength training will make you “muscle bound,” you should know that the work required to achieve this look is immense: you simply will not become over-muscled by simple strength training at normal intensities.

You’ll also want to invest in a protein-based recovery mix to drink when you are finished your exercise sessions so that you have the raw material to turn your exercise work into muscle gain. You do not need to go crazy on the protein to gain weight – there is no advantage to doing so – but you must have a plentiful supply so that your extra calories go to muscle gain rather than fat gain. The general recommendation is for 0.5 to 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight. If you are engaged in vigorous strength training to gain weight, stay closer to the 0.8 gram level.

What Are Good Foods For Weight Gain?

The key to weight gain isn’t necessarily food selection – you’ll still eat healthy foods – you’ll just have to eat more of them.  The usual approach is to eat robust meals at your normal times (e.g. breakfast, lunch and dinner) and then to supplement with high-calorie snacks and/or weight-gain drinks.

These healthy, high-calorie foods will help you gain weight the right way:

  • Nuts and seeds such as peanuts, cashews, pistachios, almonds, and sunflower seeds are high in calories and good sources of protein, monounsaturated fats, vitamin E, and other vitamins and minerals.  There is one caution though: do not overdo nuts since they are high in phytic acid and can interfere with the absorption of some minerals.  Three or four handfuls a day (with some days off) is enough.
  • Spread peanut butter on healthy foods such as apples and whole grain breads.
  • Assuming you are not allergic to dairy, use full-fat milk in place of water in hot cereal, soups, and sauces.
    • You can also substitute full-fat milk for water, coffee or tea.
    • Avoid sugary soft drinks: their calories come at the cost of an aggressive insulin spike that will ultimately hurt your efforts.  If you must have something sweet, drink the occasional milk shake instead – at least they have protein and calcium.
    • Do not be afraid to drink full-fat milk: as explained elsewhere, this is a very healthy food for those who are not dairy-sensitive.
  • Sprinkle powdered milk or whey protein into casseroles and meatloaf for added calories, protein, and calcium.
  • Add avocado, cheese, and salad dressings to salads and sandwiches.
  • Supplement casseroles and pastas with chopped meat, wheat germ, beans, nuts, or cheese.
  • There are a broad variety of weight gain formulas used by athletes and bodybuilders.
    • The trick is to find one that you find delicious and integrate it into your normal daily routine.
    • Don’t worry if you can’t drink the sheer quantity that you recommend – drink what you can tolerate easily.  The important thing is just boosting calories.
    • These drinks should not replace good, wholesome foods – only supplement!
  • Add sliced eggs to your salads or eat them hard-boiled as a snack.
  • When cooking, feel free to use healthy oils such as olive or coconut oil.

For another take on weight gain – especially if you are looking to “bulk up”, the UCLA web site also contains healthy tips for gaining weight.

17 thoughts on “When a Healthy Weight Means Gaining

  1. I know that I need to build up muscle. I had to go on a salt free diet and I cut out cafine from my diet. And to do so I almost stopped eating all together, out of fear of having another attack of Virtigo. I lost a lot weight fast, not healthy,and I lost a lot of muscle. I learned how to eat better, just need more muscle.

  2. This BMI & the the way your body is built can be very conflicting!!! AAGGHH..

    1. Direce – you’ve got that right. BMI is only good at predicting health outcomes when it correlates with percent body fat. If your body fat is high then BMI is a pretty good predictor. Folks that do a lot of strength training, however, often end up with a high BMI even if their body fat is quite low. In this case, BMI is not only inaccurate, it actually has it exactly backwards! That is because muscle mass is very good for you. In fact, one of the best predictors of short-term mortality in the aged is their muscle mass: those with plenty of muscle live longer than those that don’t.

  3. Since i have working out i have notice that i have more muscle just need to drink more water.I do drink about 7 bottles a day

  4. I never believed that drinking more water helped with weight loss, but after doing it for the last month I can clearly see the benefits.

  5. Eating foods with different textures makes them interesting and easier to consume.

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