Not all diets have weight loss as their goal. Some might actually help you gain weight if you need to. The science of weight gain is better understood than ever and there’s plenty of help available if your doctor has advised you to put on some weight. So, try some of Tony Horton’s tips for successful weight gain plans, and start putting on muscle while enjoying a healthy diet.
Underweight? Here Are Some Possible Reasons Why
Only about 1.5% of Americans are ‘underweight’, defined as someone with a Body Mass Index of 18.5 or lower. Another 65% are overweight or obese. This may be one reason why medically approved or elective weight gain has received less emphasis and advertising.1,2
Various medical and other situations might lead to dramatic or unhealthy weight loss:
- High levels of stress
- An exhausting job
- Poor appetite
- Genetic factors
- Metabolic issues
- A period of illness3
Being underweight may result in problems relating to the immune system, and to poor heart health, so it’s important to keep an eye on your BMI and consult a doctor if you’re experiencing weight loss or are consistently underweight.4
Trying To Boost Healthy Weight Gain? Try These Tips For Successful Weight Gain Plans
Wherever you begin, your doctor will probably advise you to steadily and healthily increase weight until your BMI is 20-25. Here are two rough examples:
- Judy is 5’4’’ (162 cm) tall and weighs 108 lbs (49 kg), which classifies her as underweight, with a BMI of 18.5. To hit a BMI of 20, Judy needs to gain at least 8 lbs (3.5 kg).
- Jack is also underweight at 5’11’’ (180 cm) tall and 133 lbs (60 kg). Putting on 11 lbs (5 kg) would give Jack a BMI of 20.
When gaining weight, success lies in finding healthy ways to consume more calories than you burn. Your body burns calories all the time to keep you thinking, breathing, and moving, so begin by figuring out how many calories you need to maintain your current weight. Do this in two steps:
- First, multiply your weight by 11 (for men) or 10 (for women). For example, Jack weighs 133 lbs, so maintaining his weight requires at least (133 x 11) = 1463 calories a day; at 120 lbs, Judy needs only (120 x 10) = 1200 calories per day, approximately.
- Second, be honest about how much daily activity you’re getting, and multiply your calories number according to this table:
X 1 for little or no exercise 1463 1200
X 1.1 for light exercise, 1-3 days a week 1609 1320
X 1.2 for moderate exercise 2+ days a week 1756 1440
X 1.4 for hard exercise, 3+ days a week 2048 1680
X 1.6 for working out twice or more each day 2341 1920
Judy’s twice-weekly gym schedule means she needs at least 1440 calories a day. Eating more than this means she’ll put on weight, and the pace of weight gain will depend on a combination of her food choices and the exact number of extra calories per day. 5-8
A Weight Gain Workout: Strength And Resistance Training, But Less Cardio
Your doctor may advise you to add body weight by building muscle. During a weight-gain program, most people anticipate gaining between 1.5lbs and 5lbs of muscle per month.9 The best strength exercises for weight gain are the traditional strength training routines:
- Bench press (plus inclined press, overhead press)
- Push-ups, pull-ups, and chin-ups
- Bodyweight rows (overhand)10
Treadmill, elliptical or other cardio workouts are less important. The aim of this strength training is to achieve progressive overload, which means breaking up your muscles through workouts, giving them time to heal on rest days, and then exceeding your previous achievements by…
- Lifting more weight than last time.
- Doing more sets or reps than last time.
- Waiting/resting for a shorter time between sets.
- Doing something more difficult or challenging; a variation.11
Remember to include enough rest days. Three gym days a week is likely enough for a normal weight-gain program. 12
Your Diet Matters When Trying To Gain Weight: Increase Healthy Protein And Fats
Most people find that 300-500 extra calories a day help with steady weight gain, while 700-1000 extra calories accelerate the process. 13 You already know that eating lots of calories may lead to weight gain, but making poor food choices can be detrimental to your health and can lead to increased visceral belly fat without helping to build muscle mass. So then what kind of calories represent a healthy approach, and should be part of a weight gain meal plan?
Fat yields 9 calories per gram, easily beating out the 4 calories per gram of protein and carbs.14But before you load your plate with burgers, chips, pizza, or buttered bread in search of your daily calorie objective, remember that there are several kinds of fats. Burgers can be an occasional treat, but it’s best to ditch cholesterol-boosting saturated fats in favor of:
- Monounsaturated fats (found in nuts, olives and olive oil, and avocados)
- Polyunsaturated fats (including Omega-3s found in fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel and herring, and in chia seeds, Brussels sprouts, and kale; also, Omega-6 sources like tofu, walnuts, and seeds) 15
Calorie-dense carbohydrates which can support your weight-gain plan include:
- Whole grains, like oats, brown rice, quinoa, barley, amaranth, and bulgar provide lots of calories in a relatively small serving.
- Starchy vegetables contain plenty of calories, plus other nutrients. Try including sweet potatoes, corn, beans, peas, lentils, and lots of fruit.
Protein is essential for adding muscle mass.16,17 During a weight-gain program, aim to eat approximately 1.5g of protein per pound of body weight (3.3g per kg). 18 In our example, this means that Jack, at 133 lbs, should eat 200g of protein a day, while Judy, who weighs 120 lbs, is aiming for 180g per day. As an example:
- An 8 oz piece of steak yields 52g of protein.
- 7 oz of plain (full fat) Greek yogurt provides about 20g.
- 3 oz of roasted chicken breast gives around 14g.
- A cup of canned black beans also yields about 14g.
- ½ cup cottage cheese provides at least 12g.
- 2 oz of mixed nuts yield around 11g.
- 2 Tbsp of peanut butter gives about 9g.
- One egg provides about 6g of protein from the white (3.5g) and the yolk (2.7g).
- 10 oz (250 ml/1 cup) of whole milk provides 8g of protein.19,20,21
- Whey protein might be a good option, especially if you’re struggling to add sufficient protein to your diet. 22
Both Jack and Judy are going to have to eat large, frequent meals as part of their weight gain meal plan to ensure they consume enough protein. This might include adding to the traditional three meals with an extra mid-morning meal, or a large afternoon snack. It also means focusing on energy-dense foods:23
- High-fat dairy
- Extra-virgin olive oil, avocado oil
- Grains (oats, brown rice)
- Meat (fatty cuts of pork, beef, and lamb; dark poultry meat)
- Tubers (potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams) 24
A Healthy Weight Gain Meal Plan: Increasing Your Caloric Intake
Gaining weight depends on eating more calories than you need, but this doesn’t mean eating mechanically or without enjoyment. Try some of these tips to add both calories and interest to your diet:
- Use toppings to add calories without bulk:
- Try adding honey, oats, dried fruit, and nuts to your morning yogurt.
- Add sour cream to baked potatoes.
- Sprinkle plenty of parmesan cheese over Italian dishes.
- Nut butters are a great way to add calories and helpful nutrients. To your breakfast plan, add a slice or two of whole wheat bread smeared with almond or peanut butter.
- If your meals taste good, you’re more likely to finish them. Consider including condiments, herbs, spices, sauces, and pickles to add both interest and extra nutritive value.
- Prioritize protein and fats, but make sure you include lots of fresh fruit and vegetables.
Try These Other Tips To Help Promote Quick, Safe Weight Gain
- Don’t drink water before meals, as it limits stomach capacity.
- Try making your own protein shakes and/or protein bars.
- Use a larger dinner plate to encourage generous portions.
- Add protein-rich ingredients to meals you already make:
- Add an extra egg and some cheese to scrambled eggs.
- Smear peanut butter on a slice of apple.
- Pour a cheese sauce over steamed vegetables.
- Make ‘cream of’ soup (mushroom, broccoli, tomato), instead of a clear broth.
- Ask your doctor about creatine, a supplement that may help support muscle growth. 25
- Carry a bag of trail mix for a quick, simple daytime snack.
- Make sure you follow a regular sleep cycle. Getting plenty of sleep may help promote muscle growth.
- Don’t smoke cigarettes. Smokers have a generally lower body weight. 25
Choose A Weight Gain Diet Plan That Works For You, And Stick To It
Consistency is key. While you might experience significant change in muscle mass and overall weight during the first month of a weight-gain program, it’s important to think long-term. Gaining the habits which yield muscle growth will depend on a regular workout schedule and some dietary planning to ensure the right balance of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates.
Speak with your doctor to assess your health goals, and to be sure you’re on the right path for healthy weight gain.