On rare occasions, I’ll have a client ask, “how do I gain weight?” While I realize this is not the standard American problem, there are many of us, athletes and non-athletes alike, myself included, who would like to put on mass rather than remove it.
Gaining lean mass, and maybe a little bit of fat if needed, sounds simple in theory. Just eat more, right? Well, kind of. Because I feel like this is an important, and somewhat overlooked, topic, I’d like to share some of the key points for healthy weight gain:
- Know your starting point. To gain weight, you need to be eating more calories than you use during the day. Therefore, it’s usually helpful to have an estimate of how many calories you need! Calorie requirements vary by age, sex, height, weight, and activity level, but there are plenty of online calculators that will help to give a rough estimate.
- Junk food is not the answer. While consuming extra calories can be achieved through eating junk food, simply because most junk foods are high in calories, it is not ideal to gain weight on junk food. Doing so can throw off the delicate balance of hormones and other bodily systems, starting at a cellular level. Excessive refined carbohydrates and sugars, for instance, can cause resistance or insensitivity to insulin, which is a key component of type 2 diabetes. Insulin resistance is also associated with an increase risk of heart disease, stroke, colon and breast cancers, and polycystic ovarian syndrome (which can cause fertility issues). In addition, because junk foods are often low or devoid of nutrients, relying on junk foods for energy (i.e. calories) may lead to deficiencies in key nutrients, causing a variety of symptoms/issues ranging from low energy or fatigue to anxiety or irritability to anemia or even osteoporosis later in life.
- Eat protein, but don’t go crazy. As an athlete who spends a decent amount of time around other athletes, I have heard much talk about making sure to consume adequate protein, especially when in the process of putting on muscle. And while I don’t dispute the fact that protein is key, there is such thing as too much protein. Over consuming protein puts extra demand on the kidneys, which may not be an immediate health concern for healthy people, but for those with kidney disease, or who may be at risk for kidney complications due to other conditions (like diabetes or high blood pressure), it is especially important to not go overboard on protein. Even without kidney concerns, focusing too much on protein can lead to less consumption of other food groups, and therefore nutrient insufficiencies. Of course ratios will vary person to person depending on individual needs and preferences, but standard recommendations for protein to aid in weight gain range from 1.6-2 grams per kilogram of body weight daily to .7-1 gram per pound of body weight daily (for me, a 155 pound woman, this would be either 113-141g or 108-155g). If you prefer to look at it a different way, protein should make up anywhere from 16-30% of total calories daily, depending on your activity level.
- Eat your macros. The key macronutrients for any diet are carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Carbohydrate and protein both have 4kcal per gram, while fats have 9kcal per gram. Everyone is different in what their body needs to be healthy and function optimally, so some people might do better on a lower carb, higher fat diet, while others might do better on a higher carb, lower fat diet. Protein is important (as we’ve already discussed), and ultimately ratios will be very individualized. In the end, it is about finding a balance of all 3 macronutrients that 1) exceeds your energy requirements in calories each day, 2) is enjoyable to eat and fairly easy to stay consistent with, and 3) makes you feel good.
- Get back to basics. And by basics, I mean real food. Healthy meals for weight gain will be ones that consist of the 3 macronutrients (as we’ve already discussed) and furthermore, are made up of whole, nutrient-dense, minimally-processed foods. Since a big key to making gains is to eat more calories than you use each day, it may be beneficial to look for higher calorie whole foods, like nuts/nut butters, coconut oil, and whole fat/grass-fed dairy. Load up on fruits and veggies (at least one serving at each meal) and include starchy carbohydrates like rice, potatoes/sweet potatoes, whole grain pastas or breads, oatmeal, etc. Good sources of animal protein include grass-fed beef, pasture-raised chicken and eggs, game meats, and wild-caught fish.
Healthy weight gain, much like healthy weight loss, should be fairly gradual. Though it may be tempting, and relatively easy, to gain weight by stuffing our faces with junk food, no matter what the goal, and no matter what the scale says, the most important element of nutrition is nourishment. So please, if you are looking to gain weight, don’t forget to put your health first by incorporating these key points. I promise, your body will thank you for it!
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Fink, H., Mikesky, A. (2015). Practical Applications in Sports Nutrition 4th edition. Burlington, MA: Jones and Bartlett Learning.
Jones, D.S. (2010). Textbook of Functional Medicine. Federal Way, WA: The Institute for Functional Medicine.
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