Healthy weight gain is not a very common topic these days. With so many North Americans overweight or obese, most of us are interested in weight loss instead of gaining weight. But there are still some people who are underweight and who want to know how to achieve a healthy weight without eating junk food. And of course, healthy weight gain during pregnancy is also a concern for many of us.
So today I wanted to write a little about how to put on weight the right way. This post is prompted by a reader who asked if I would write an article on healthy ways to gain weight. But it’s also for anyone who experiences loss of appetite due to cancer treatments, ADHD medication, or chronic illness. And it’s for parents of picky eaters, and adults who are caring for elderly parents who have trouble eating. If you or a loved one need tips to promote gradual, healthy weight gain, I’ve gathered the best expert advice for you here.
Healthy Weight Gain Starts with Healthy Food
I’m sure you already know that in order to gain weight, you’ll have to consume more calories. But the trick to healthy weight gain is eating the right foods to get those calories. If you start pigging out on chips, fried foods, and desserts, you will gain weight. But it will likely be fat instead of healthy muscle mass. And you’re also going to expose your body to a ton of trans fats, sodium, and added sugars that will put your health at risk.
If you want to gain weight the healthy way, you need to eat healthy foods. If you think that means eating “rabbit food” like carrot sticks and spinach leaves, think again! There are plenty of healthy foods that are dense and higher in calories than carrots and greens. These foods will help you to achieve a healthy weight gain, especially if you can also adopt a few simple changes to you usual eating habits.
Weight Gain Calls for Healthy, Dense Foods
When you’re trying to gain weight, choose foods that are low in volume but rich in calories and nutrients. Think nuts and nut butters, starchy vegetables and fruits like potatoes, winter squash, or under-ripe bananas, and also dense fruits like mango and avocado. Choose dried fruits like raisins or dried apricot slices over their fresh counterparts.
Eat dense cereals like granola and muesli. Opt for fatty fish like salmon, and indulge in red meat. Treats like granola and cereal bars, and nutrient-dense baked goods like oatmeal cookies or bran muffins make the list of recommended foods as well. Just be careful to balance out the more processed foods with whole foods like lean meat and fish, fresh produce, raw nuts, and healthy dairy options.
Eat More Often to Gain Weight
There is some controversy over whether fewer or more meals are better for weight loss, but if you’re trying to gain weight the experts are unanimous on the subject. You need to eat more often to ensure weight gain.
Underweight individuals may feel full faster, says Mayo Clinic dietitian Katherine Zeratsky. She recommends eating 5-6 smaller meals throughout the day instead of 2-3 larger ones. Most experts say you should try to space meals and snacks about 3-4 hours apart. This will encourage you to consume enough calories to promote your weight gain. But just as importantly, it will prevent your body burning off stored fat between meals.
Insulin levels in your body rise soon after you eat a meal. For a healthy person eating moderately, insulin levels return to normal about 2-4 hours after eating. While insulin levels are up, your body uses glucose for energy. Once insulin levels drop, your body will start to burn fat. While this is desirable for people trying to lose weight, if you are underweight it can deter your weight gain.
Combine Foods from Different Food Groups
This last habit change is important for everyone, whether you’re trying to gain or lose weight, or just maintain a healthy body weight. For people trying to gain weight, it helps to ensure that you are maximizing the calories in a meal or snack. But just as importantly, combining foods from different food groups ensures that you’re getting a good variety of nutrients to keep your body healthy.
Try to aim for combining at least three different food groups in any snack or meal. This encourages you to be more mindful about what you eat, and to make healthy food choices instead of reaching for processed foods that contain less healthy fats, added sugars, and refined carbohydrates.
You don’t necessarily need to cook. Just choose foods that complement one another. So don’t just eat just that handful of nuts by itself. Throw in some dried fruit to create a healthy trail mix, and drink a glass of milk with it. Instead of reaching for a package of string cheese, cut a slice of Gruyère and toast some multigrain bread. Top your sandwich with some sliced tomatoes, lettuce, and half a ripe avocado, and you have a balanced meal that will satisfy you and help nourish your body while you work on your weight gain.
Other Tips for Healthy Weight Gain
- Enrich foods: It’s pretty easy to sneak healthy calories into foods or beverages. Drizzle a healthy fat like olive oil onto your baked or mashed potato, or sprinkle on some grated cheese. Top a salad with some pumpkin seeds, wheat germ, or ground flax seed, or add them to your favourite whole grain bread recipe. Enrich your tuna casserole with some a little powdered milk. Snack on energy balls enriched with protein powder.
- Drink your calories: If you’re having a tough time getting all the calories you need, sometimes a glass of juice or a smoothie can help. You should also make a habit of drinking milk, or perhaps you might want to try kefir. Cut back on beverages such as tea and coffee, as these aren’t dense in either calories or nutrients – but they do fill you up. You should also avoid drinking empty calories in the form of soft drinks or other sugary beverages. Choose unsweetened juices made from fruits and vegetables, or whip up a homemade smoothie with banana, yogurt, and your choice of fruits and vegetables.
- Make your own: You may be ditching the low fat salad dressing and the zero calorie sugar substitutes, but that doesn’t mean you should load up on overly processed condiments and convenience foods. Try a homemade vinaigrette made with healthy fats or overnight oatmeal made with yogurt, dried fruit, and nuts instead of buying less healthy salad dressing or prefab parfaits.
- Eat before bed: This tip is especially important if you are pregnant and coping with morning sickness. But for anyone trying to gain weight, eating a little something before bedtime is important. This might be the first change you make to your eating habits when you’re trying to increase your caloric intake. Remember to choose whole, healthy foods instead of processed snacks. And combine energy dense foods from several food groups.
- Don’t fill up on water: If drinking water cuts your appetite, don’t drink a large amount right before mealtimes. Instead, sip water throughout the day whenever you’re thirsty. And remember to drink your milk, juices, and smoothies as well. Staying hydrated doesn’t have to keep you from getting the calories you need for weight gain.
- Don’t forget to exercise: It may seem counter-intuitive to exercise when you’re trying to gain weight, since exercise uses up calories. But exercising can also stimulate your appetite. Which will help you to consume the extra calories you need. And it helps to ensure that you are gaining weight from lean muscle mass instead of fat.
Healthy Weight Gain: The Bottom Line
That about sums up the expert advice on achieving a healthy weight gain. The most important thing you can do is to eat low volume, high density foods at 5-6 small meals spaced evenly throughout the day. Remember to combine foods from three or more food groups. Keep up with healthy exercise, and stay hydrated. But feel free to enjoy healthy smoothies, milk, or a little orange juice so you’re getting calories and nutrients in your drinks too. This will help you stay healthy and lean while you increase your body weight.
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Original content © 2018 Kyla Matton Osborne, aka #RubyWriter
Public domain images by Pixabay users stevepb, HolgersFotografie, PDPics, and annca
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