A healthy weight-gain plan relies on two goals: increasing calories with a nutrient-rich diet while building lean muscle with a safe exercise program. Gaining weight requires some advance planning because randomly consuming high-calorie foods is guaranteed to result only in unhealthy weight gain from fat. Most people can design and implement their own plan, but if you’ve lost weight for no apparent reason -- or if you've already tried to gain weight and failed -- consult your doctor to rule out any underlying health concerns.
Calories Needed for Healthy Weight Gain
The first step in a healthy weight-gain program is to figure out how many calories you need to reach your goals. If you don’t know your current caloric intake, now is the time to figure it out. Keep a journal of everything you consume for a few days, then use the data from the Nutrition Facts label on food products or consult a resource like the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s nutrient database to tally your calories. You could also use an online calculator, such as the USDA’s SuperTracker, which automatically estimates your caloric intake for you.
Increase your caloric intake by 500 calories each day to gain 1 pound weekly. If you want a slower pace, adding 250 calories daily means you’ll get the 3,500 calories needed to gain 1 pound in two weeks. Don’t add fewer than 250 calories a day, unless recommended by a health care professional. At that rate, it will take so long to accumulate an extra pound of weight that you may get discouraged.
Also, remember that your current caloric intake goes hand-in-hand with your activity level. In other words, an extra 500 calories daily will only lead to weight gain if you don’t increase your activity. Calories need to increase in proportion to the number of calories you use when you spend more time exercising. You can estimate the number, using the Harvard Medical School’s list of calories burned or using an online calculator such as the one provided by Health Status.
Include Exercise in Your Weight Gain Plan
Healthy weight gain should come from developing lean muscle rather than from excess fat. While some subcutaneous fat is healthy because it serves a protective function for muscles and organs, weight gain that consists of excessive abdominal fat puts you at risk for chronic disease. The key is to balance aerobic exercise with strength training. Aerobic exercise is good for your heart but counter-productive for increasing weight because it burns a lot of calories. Strength training, or weight training, uses fewer calories and promotes muscle growth.
If you don’t already engage in strength training, consult a professional trainer at the gym or consult a physical therapist. They’ll help you design a safe, effective program. It’s important to learn the proper form, to exercise all muscle groups, and start with the weight amount that doesn’t tire the muscles until the end of your repetitions, according to Harvard Medical School. Muscles also need time off for repair and recovery, so limit your weight training to two to four times weekly.
Incorporate aerobic activities on the days you don’t do strength training. Aim for two to three cardio workouts weekly, but keep your sessions to about 20 to 30 minutes and stay at a moderate intensity to limit the number of calories used, recommends the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. You’ll sustain muscle gains if you use a rowing machine or interval training, rather than engaging in running, which burns so many calories you may lose muscle mass and offset your weight gain efforts.
Food Tips to Increase Weight
Depending on the number of calories you need to add to your diet, a few simple tips may be all you need. One important tip is to eat frequently -- for example, three meals with two or three snacks -- and keep it up because you need to get plenty of calories consistently to see results. An easy first step is to double the size of the portions you usually eat, but don’t double-up on empty calories.
Get a good balance of all macronutrients. Don’t skimp on carbs and fats -- they’re vital for calories -- but choose nutrient-rich foods. Some good choices include whole grains, nuts, dried fruit and starchy vegetables like peas, baked potatoes and sweet potatoes. With 9 calories per gram, fats are rich in calories, but choose healthy unsaturated fats such as vegetable oils, avocados, seeds, nuts and nut butters. Consuming some full-fat milk products will help with weight gain because they have almost twice the number of calories of fat-free dairy products.
Boost the calories for breakfast or snacks by topping your oatmeal or quinoa with any combination of nuts, fruit, dark chocolate, ground flaxseed or yogurt. Replace your usual, ready-to-eat cereal with granola, which has 400 to 600 calories per cup. While you should still limit saturated fats to no more than 7 percent of your daily calories -- or about 4 grams of saturated fat for every 500 calories -- you’ll get more calories from cuts of meat that have a higher fat content such as pork shoulder, ground pork, chuck roast, rib steak and spareribs.
Protein and Weight Gain Boosters
Protein supports weight gain by supplying the amino acids needed for muscle growth. While all proteins are used to build and repair muscles, a rapidly absorbed protein like whey serves as an nearly-instant source of amino acids after a workout, according to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in September 2011. You may also boost muscle synthesis while you sleep by having a high-protein snack at night. The Institute of Medicine recommends getting 10 to 35 percent of your total calories from protein, which is 12 to 44 grams of protein for every 500 calories. You also need to get enough carbs and fats so you don’t use protein for energy.
If you have a hard time eating enough food to fill your calorie goal, consider supplementing with weight gainers, which are also called mass gainers. These products are powders that are mixed with water or milk to make a shake. With a weight gainer, you can get anywhere from 500 to 1,300 calories with just one beverage, depending on the product you buy. Since they’re used by athletes to build muscles, most brands also contain about 50 grams of protein. Use caution though, because this amount of protein could be dangerous if you have certain medical conditions, such as kidney disease. Get the OK from your doctor before using weight gainers.
To make a high-calorie beverage at home, begin with a standard blend of whole milk, a package of instant breakfast powder and instant dry milk. Then add any combination of ingredients to make your favorite shake. Experiment with bananas, strawberries, apples, frozen or regular yogurt, nuts, cocoa powder, wheat germ, ground flaxseed and oats.
- Harvard Medical School: Seven Tips for a Safe and Successful Strength-Training Program
- University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: Gaining Weight the Healthy Way
- USDA National Nutrient Database: Cereals Ready-to-Eat, Quaker, 100 Percent Natural Granola, Oats, Wheat and Honey
- USDA National Nutrient Database: Cereals, Ready-to-Eat, Granola, Homemade
- American Heart Association: Know Your Fats
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: Rapid Aminoacidemia Enhances Myofibrillar Protein Synthesis and Anabolic Intramuscular Signaling Responses After Resistance Exercise
- Institute of Medicine: Dietary Reference Intakes: Macronutrients
- Columbia University: Go Ask Alice: The Skinny on Cardio and Muscle Gains in Men
- Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise: Protein Ingestion Before Sleep Improves Postexercise Overnight Recovery