Many — perhaps most — people in the U.S. have tried to drop a few pounds at one time or another. More than 73% of adults age 20 and above in the U.S. are overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That includes the more than 42% of adults who are obese.
Fortunately, there are a plethora of diets that, if you follow them, should help you lose weight while getting the nutrition you need. But what should you do if you want to gain weight in a healthy manner? Is it possible to put on pounds without compromising your health?
Some people may want to gain weight for a variety of health, aesthetic or physiological reasons, says Kaylee Jacks, a sports dietitian with Texas Health Sports Medicine in Dallas. For example, individuals with Crohn’s disease — a chronic autoimmune disorder of the intestinal tract — have difficulty putting on and maintaining weight.
Some individuals who have active lifestyles may want to increase their body mass to increase their strength or increase their activity levels.
According to the CDC, individuals who have a body mass index of less than 18.5 are considered underweight. BMI is a person’s weight in kilograms divided by the square of their height in meters.
People who, for various reasons, are underweight, Jacks notes, may be at a higher risk for certain health conditions, including:
— Developmental delays in adolescents.
— Lung tissue complications.
— Fracture risk.
— Early death.
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,” Jacks says. “It is important, however, to be strategic about the way you do this so you gain healthy weight and avoid risk of metabolic disease by getting most of your extra calories from nutrient-poor or inflammatory foods.”
8 Strategies for Gaining Weight
It’s important to consider the quantity, quality and timing of the foods you eat, Jacks says. While every individual is different, if you’re trying to gain weight, adding one to three pounds a week is a realistic rate.
Here are eight strategies for gaining weight healthfully:
1. Consume energy- and nutrient-dense foods.
Some people, particularly those who are physically active or growing, may need a lot of calories to attain a caloric surplus. “This can be challenging when considering the sheer volume of food needed,” Jacks says.
However, there are foods — such as healthy fats — that are high in nutrients and calories. Such foods include:
— Fatty fish (rainbow trout, salmon, sardines and tuna).
— Nuts and nut butters.
— Seeds and seed butters.
Jacks suggests adding flaxseeds or chia seeds to smoothies, salads, casseroles or yogurt. You can 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.”
You can also consider 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.
2. 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,” Jacks says. “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 calorie 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, Jacks suggests drinking fruit juice or low-fat milk.
3. 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,” Jacks says. “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.”
Consume three to five balanced meals with snacks in between. Aim to include whole grains, lean protein, fruits, vegetables, healthy fats and dairy with each meal.
“When snacking, aim to pair a quality carbohydrate such as whole grains, fruits or vegetables with a protein,” she says. “By doing this, the carbohydrates can restore energy while the protein can help rebuild muscle tissue.”
Snack examples include:
— An apple with peanut butter.
— Carrot sticks with hummus.
— Crackers with string cheese.
— A peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
— Trail mix.
— Yogurt with fruit.
[See: Top Plant-Based Proteins.]
4. Drink your calories.
Consuming nutrient-packed, calorie-containing drinks can help you reach your healthy weight gain goals.
Such drinks can include:
— 100% fruit juice.
— Chocolate milk.
— Low-fat milk.
— Protein shakes.
— Sports drinks.
— Vitamin water.
— Lattes made with milk.
— Kefir or yogurt drinks.
5. Add toppings.
Specifically, cheese, cheese and more cheese, advises Kelly Coffey, a personal trainer based in Northampton, Massachusetts. “Put cheese on and in everything,” she says. “Go nuts.”
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 which are naturally lactose free, such as cheddar, Parmesan, Swiss or feta, or try dairy-free cheese substitutes.
6. 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,” Jacks says. “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” like 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,” says Jacks “This can be a few gulps of a sports drink every 15 minutes.”
7. 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.
Lisa Jones, a registered dietitian based in Philadelphia, suggests these post-workout snacks:
— Whole-grain toast and peanut butter.
— Greek yogurt with berries and granola.
— Pita and hummus.
8. 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, Jones says. 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, says Joe Szadok, a personal trainer and territory manager for Gymguyz, which sends personal trainers to your home or business. Szadok is based in Long Island, New York.
Doing weight or resistance training can help you gain muscle and keep your body strong and toned, he says.
If you’re trying to gain weight, Szadok recommends 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 — such as hardcover books or plastic bags of sand — then do squats while wearing the backpack.
Szadok recommends consulting with a personal trainer to make sure your form is correct, to maximize your results and to minimize the chances of injury.
“When you’re getting strong, you’re going to build muscle,” he says. “There’s no way to get strong without building muscle.”
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Update 03/22/22: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.