When you need to gain weight, the top concern is staying healthy. It’s easy to boost calories with sugary sweets, fried foods and high-fat snacks, but you’ll end up packing on unwanted fat and increasing the risk of chronic disease. First make sure your calories come from nutritious foods. Then create a diet that provides the right balance of proteins, carbohydrates and fats. Foods with the highest calories in each macronutrient group -- carbs, proteins and fats -- can be combined together and with other healthy foods to create dishes that deliver double and triple the calories.
Determine Calories to Gain Weight
Before you can plan a diet and choose foods to reach your weight gain goals, you’ll need to determine a calorie budget. One pound equals 3,500 calories, so if you consume 500 extra calories every day -- above what your body uses for energy -- you’ll gain 1 pound each week. Adjust the calories according to the rate at which you want to gain weight. Also, don’t forget to boost calorie intake if you increase your daily activities because they’ll burn some of the extra calories.
According to the Institute of Medicine, 45 to 65 percent of your total daily calories should come from carbohydrates, which translates to 281 to 406 grams based on a total daily consumption of 2,500 calories. For protein, the IOM recommends 10 to 35 percent, or 62 to 218 grams daily for the same number of calories. Fats should account for 20 to 35 percent of calories, which, for the estimated 2,500 calories daily, works out to 56 to 97 grams of fats. Use an online calculator to determine the precise macronutrient intake for your calorie goals.
Choose Whole-Grain and Complex Carbs
Whole-grain foods retain the grain's natural fiber and contain complex carbs in the form of starches. Other foods, such as dried fruit and potatoes, are also complex carbs that supply starch and fiber even though they're not grains. Both groups are good sources of calories from carbs.
Nutrient-rich granola is one of the top choices for weight gain because 1 cup has 404 calories. Whole grains such as quinoa, brown rice and pearled barley provide 193 to 222 calories per cup, while two slices of whole-wheat bread have 133 calories. You’ll significantly boost calories with large bagels; a large oat bran bagel, for example, has 334 calories.
Dried fruits are high-calorie options with a concentrated amount of vitamins. You only need 1/2 cup of raisins, dates, dried cherries, dried blueberries or dried pears to get 208 to 266 calories. Dried apricots, figs, peaches or cranberries contribute around 200 calories.
Starchy veggies, especially beans, sweet potatoes and baked potatoes, belong on a weight-gain menu. You can count on 200 to 269 calories from a cup of various beans, such as pinto, kidney, black beans and garbanzo beans. A medium-sized baked Russet potato and a large sweet potato each deliver about 165 calories.
List of High-Calorie Proteins
Meats and full-fat dairy products contain saturated fat, which can raise cholesterol. No more than 10 percent of your daily calories should come from saturated fats, recommends the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015. As long as you stay within the limit for saturated fats, don't hesitate to choose meats with more total fat and full-fat dairy products because they have more calories.
Fish is an important source of essential omega-3 fatty acids, but it’s not quite as high in calories as most meats. A 3-ounce serving of halibut, salmon, trout, tuna and sardines has about 168 to 214 calories. When your goal is to add pounds, some cuts of meat will get you there more quickly. A 3-ounce portion of ground pork has 334 calories. Other choices, such as pork shoulder, spare ribs and chuck roast are in the range of 290 to 330 calories.
Whole milk and dairy products such as yogurt and cheese are also proteins that can help with weight gain. You’ll get 233 calories from a cup of yogurt with fruit. One cup of whole milk supplies 149 calories and 1 ounce of cheddar cheese has 114 calories.
Calorie-Rich Fats Support Weight Gain
Fats have double the calories per gram compared to carbs and proteins. They’re also healthy if you fill most of your daily requirements with cholesterol-lowering unsaturated fats. The list for this group includes nutrient-dense nuts and seeds. Macadamia nuts are at the high end with 201 calories in a 1-ounce serving. The same portion of most other nuts and seeds contains 159 to 199 calories. Flaxseeds, which are a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, supply 150 calories per ounce.
Salad dressings can add a fair amount of calories because 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil contains 117 calories. A tablespoon of nut butter has around 94 calories, so you can afford to use at least double that amount on a sandwich to support your weight gain efforts. Two final sources of healthy fats are dark chocolate and avocado. An ounce of dark chocolate has 167 calories, and 1 cup of cubed avocado provides 240 calories.
High-Calorie Combinations and Tips
You can maximize calorie consumption by combining several high-calorie foods in a meal, or even better, for snacks between meals. If you put 2 tablespoons of a nut butter and 1/2 cup of raisins between a medium bagel, you’ll have a 730-calorie sandwich. Three ounces of chicken breast have 170 calories, so if you make a sandwich with chicken, 2 ounces of cheese and two slices of whole-wheat bread, you’re up to 531 calories before adding slices of avocado and a dressing.
Look for ways to add extra calories. For example, add powdered milk to whole milk, mashed potatoes and milkshakes. Use milk instead of water when you prepare grains such as oatmeal. Sprinkle nuts, seeds, ground flaxseed and grated cheese into soup, cereal and salad. Use beverages such as milkshakes and smoothies made with milk, yogurt, fruit and scoops of protein or weight gainer powder to get extra calories.
- Institute of Medicine: Dietary Reference Intakes: Macronutrients
- USDA National Nutrient Database: Cereals, Ready-to-Eat, Quaker, 100 percent Natural Granola, Oats, Wheat and Honey
- HealthAliciousNess: Top 10 Foods Highest in Calories
- USDA National Nutrient Database, Bagels, Oat Bran
- Calorie Lab: Beans Calorie Counter
- Calorie Lab: Potatoes Calorie Counter
- Health.gov: Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015
- USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service: Beef and Veal
- USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service: Pork and Lamb
- Monkey Matters Nutritional Charts: Dairy Products and Eggs