It is easy to find articles that talk about weight loss, but not common to find ones on how to gain weight — let alone gain weight in a healthy way. Being underweight might not be a problem for some of us, but it can come with its own set of health issues for those finding it difficult.
If you’re struggling to gain weight healthily (without resorting to eating high-calorie junk food), this post address what the research says and how to increase muscle mass with minimal fat gain.
What’s Wrong With Being Underweight?
There’s a definite perception in society that being thin equals being healthy. However, this is definitely not safe to assume. For example, one 2018 study found that being underweight demonstrated a higher risk of mortality than being overweight!
Health complications due to being significantly underweight isn’t totally a surprise. There is usually an underlying reason for being significantly underweight (or several of them) such as illness, malnutrition, stress, eating disorders, depression, or genetics.
For women, a body mass index (BMI) of under 18.5 is considered underweight. While this is just a touch less than a healthy weight, studies show falling much below this has the potential to end in significant health problems. These could include developmental delays, decreased immune system function, decreased hormone production, nutrient deficiencies, anemias, digestive stress, chronic disease… and the list goes on.
It’s crazy… we all strive so hard to be thin, when in reality we are only doing more harm to our bodies if we take it to an extreme. Supplying the body with the proper nutrients to fuel energy production and build muscle strength will help to correct the problems that being underweight may cause.
If Donuts Are Out, Then How Do I Gain Weight Healthily?
Gaining weight may seem like a no-brainer. Just eat whatever you want, whenever you want, and don’t exercise! Sounds like a dream, but before you run out and to the closest donut shop — think again! This method of gaining weight sets you up for chronic inflammation as it is weight gain in the form of fat, not muscle, and it certainly isn’t doing your body any favors nutritionally.
I suggest exploring a much healthier way to gain weight, one that allows for muscle growth and proper energy levels. Gaining weight healthily boils down to three factors:
- Focusing on specific foods
- Increasing calorie load
- Performing specific exercises that work with your body rather than against
The goal is to increase the number on the scale and lean muscle tissue without risking a decrease in health. There is an ideal method to this madness! So here we go:
Step 1: Increase Calorie Intake (Energy Intake)
In order to gain weight, you need to consume more energy than you burn. When energy beyond the body’s immediate needs is eaten in the form of nutrient-dense food, it will become stored energy in muscle or in fat to be used by the body as fuel when needed.
In contrast, empty calories from processed foods are typically stored as fat. The body does not necessarily recognize these calories as fuel, so sequesters it as fat.
Keep a Food Log
In order to make a healthy weight gain more successful, keep a log of the foods you eat on a daily basis. You may be consuming fewer calories than you think! If this is the case, increase calorie intake by 150-250 calories per day. However, this ultimately depends on the rate at which weight gain is desired. Rapid weight gain would require adding a higher number of calories per day while slower weight gain would require adding less.
Step 2: Eat More Frequently In Less Volume
Believe it or not, gaining weight and building muscle is a lot of work and may require a change in eating habits. I’ve written before about eating only when hungry, but this assumes your hunger cues are working the way they should.
Eating more meals of smaller size throughout the day may help in increasing overall calorie intake. Four smaller meals per day or eating healthy snacks about every 3-4 hours is ideal. It allows for more food consumed throughout the day and also provides enough time between each meal to allow for complete digestion and maximum nutrient absorption for the most gains.
Step 3: Improve Food Choices: Quality and Quantity
The quality of foods selected for safe and effective weight gain are critical. Focus on nutrient-rich foods that are going to be beneficial to the body, not harmful.
Here are the foods that are most beneficial for weight gain:
High quality protein sources should come from humanely raised animals in the form of grass-fed and free-range meats, wild game, pasture-raised chickens and eggs, collagen, grass-fed beef protein, and wild-caught fish such as salmon.
If animal products are not part of your diet, focus on protein in the form of hemp seed, soaked beans, unsweetened plain yogurt, raw nuts, seeds, and quality protein powders. If you are really feeling adventurous, you could even explore cricket flour as an alternative source of protein!
A good rule of thumb to use when determining how much protein needed each day is 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight. If that seems like a lot, a minimum of 100 grams of protein per day is a good place to start.
Omega-3 and omega-9 fatty acids should take the lead when increasing fat intake as they provide a large number of health benefits. Try to minimize the amount of omega-6 fatty acids as they can be inflammatory in high quantity.
Inflammation can be a major underlying factor as to why weight gain is difficult for some. Omega-3 fatty acids help to decrease inflammation in the body and repair damaged muscle. Our bodies cannot make omega-3 fatty acids, therefore we need to obtain them from our diet. Foods that contain a high amount of omega-3 fatty acids include fish oils (salmon, sardines, anchovies), chia seeds, walnuts, macadamia nuts, flax seed, hemp seeds, and egg yolks.
Omega-9 fatty acids are monounsaturated fats generally found in animal products and vegetable fats. Omega-9 fatty acids can be found in sources such as nuts, mustard seed, salmon, and healthy oils like nut oils, olive oil, avocado oil.
Other forms of good quality fat include coconut milk, coconut cream, cacao, cacao butter, raw dairy products, ghee, avocado, avocado oil, macadamia nut oil, olives, and high fat cuts of humanely raised meat.
On the other hand, limit omega-6 fatty acids including corn, peanuts, soybeans, soybean oil, cottonseed, and meat and dairy products from conventionally raised animals.
Carbohydrates help to fuel and build muscle strength when trying to gain weight. Focusing on complex carbohydrates rather than simple starches will help to stabilize blood sugar while providing the right amount of glucose to the body to be stored as energy. Carbohydrates are a great post-workout fuel for building muscle.
Complex sources of carbohydrates include yuca, taro root, sweet potato, plantains, spaghetti squash, butternut squash, fruit, quinoa, and even rice.
Cooking starches in good quality fats such as coconut oil, butter, or smothering them in olive oil is the perfect way to incorporate fats into a carbohydrate-rich meal. The combination creates more potential for healthy gains.
Increasing the combination of healthy fats and complex carbohydrates will generally lead to the most healthy weight gain. Furthermore, increasing daily calorie load with liquid nutrients in the form of smoothies help to provide high-calorie nutrients without taking up too much space in the gut.
Step 4: Exercise
Just because healthy weight gain is the goal does not mean exercise should come to a halt. Exercising 4-5 days per day week is sufficient in providing significant health benefits. Focusing on exercises such as strength training, heavy lifting, CrossFit, yoga, and high intensity interval training (HIIT) will provide the most muscle and weight gain while minimizing fat gain. Weight gain benefits are increased when long duration cardiovascular exercises are kept to a minimum.
Step 5: Get Adequate Sleep
Sleep is extremely important to our overall health. This is the time during our 24 hours that our body is able to heal and repair damaged muscle tissue from the stressors of the day helping it to become stronger. Striving for a minimum of 7-8 hours of high quality deep sleep has more of a profound impact on healthy gains than you may assume.
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Nick Nwabueze, a board-certified Family Medicine physician. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor or work with a doctor at SteadyMD.
Your turn… tell me your experience! Is gaining weight more of a concern than losing it?