Even when formal muscle-building exercise isn't an option, making quality dietary choices to gain weight will improve your appearance and function. Being underweight puts you at greater risk for infection, osteoporosis, weakness and poor self-esteem, so your doctor may suggest that you gain weight to improve your health. But if you have a small appetite or a high metabolism or if you're recovering from illness, gaining weight can be as difficult as losing weight. Add more calories from healthy foods to improve your nutrient intake, enhance immunity and boost your energy.
Create a Calorie Surplus
Weight gain requires you to eat more calories than you burn, and to do so regularly. To estimate your daily calorie expenditure, use an online calculator that factors in your age, size, gender and activity level. Then add 500 calories to this number to promote a steady gain of about 1 pound a week.
The ultimate size of this calorie surplus depends on your weight goals and on your comfort level. You must settle on a calorie surplus that feels manageable so you can gain weight successfully. If you're healthy, have a high metabolism and a good appetite, you may be able to add 1,000 extra calories to your daily total, with a projected gain of 2 pounds weekly. But if you have a small appetite and are overwhelmed by the prospect of weight gain, a modest increase of 250 calories a day can help you gain 1/2 pound per week. Alternatively, consult with a dietitian to assess your caloric needs and to decide on a weight-gain goal.
Instead of Exercise, Add Functional Movement
When you're gaining weight, adding lean muscle mass is optimal, but sometimes it is impossible to exercise because of your energy levels, a physical disability or you dislike working out at the gym. Doing structured exercise, such as weight training, does help with muscle gain, but it isn't your only choice for healthy movement.
Light activity is valuable because it stimulates your appetite. Light activity might be as simple as taking a casual stroll with friends or family. At first, you might not feel like going far, so only go a short distance several times a day. Swimming or pool walking, light cycling or dancing are other leisure activities that encourage healthy movement to stimulate circulation, heart health and appetite. Start with a goal of only 10 minutes and add more time when you feel stronger.
Functional activities such as pulling weeds, carrying groceries and mowing your lawn count as physical activity and support weight gain, especially when conventional exercise isn't an option.
Choose Nutrient-Rich, Calorie-Dense Foods
When actors and actresses take on roles that require them to pack on the pounds, they boast of gorging on milkshakes, pasta and doughnuts. While these foods do provide extra calories, they fail to offer much in the way of vitamins, minerals, healthy fats and protein necessary to support a healthy body.
When you do need to put on weight to improve your health and self-esteem, choose high-calorie foods that also offer quality nutrition to support stronger bones, lush, silkier hair and a brighter complexion. Larger servings of lean proteins, whole grains and starchy vegetables will increase the calorie count of your meals. Dried fruit, granola, nuts, whole-milk yogurt and calorie-dense fruits, such as bananas and mangoes, are nutritious choices at snack time.
Augment your meals with high-calorie extras. Toss whole-wheat pasta or roasted vegetables with olive oil before serving; spread peanut butter on whole-wheat toast or on fruit; sprinkle cheese over scrambled eggs; cook hot cereal with whole milk; top salads with sunflower seeds; and add dry milk to soups and casseroles. These small extras do add up. For example, if you add 1/4 cup of raisins to your morning oatmeal, one-quarter of an avocado to your turkey sandwich at lunch and an ounce of shredded cheddar to your dinner-time baked potato, you've successfully increased your daily intake by 300 calories.
Eat More Often to Gain Weight
You may have the best intentions to eat regularly, but distractions and a busy schedule may interfere. But if you want to put on pounds, it is critical for you to eat often. Set a timer to remind you to eat every two to four hours. Keep a food journal, too -- it may reveal that you're not eating as often as you think or that you're underestimating your daily intake.
Eating mini meals more often may help you overcome a small appetite. Small servings of energy-dense snacks -- such as a handful of nuts or a few dates -- eaten every few hours can be as effective at increasing your calorie intake as eating three large meals. Even when your calorie intake is made up of small snacks throughout the day, aim for a variety of foods that provide nutritional balance. Foods to include in a grazing eating pattern are nuts, yogurt, bananas, avocado, hummus with baked pita chips, cheese and hard-boiled eggs.
Pack snacks, such as a baggie full of trail mix or peanut butter on whole-wheat crackers, that you can stash in your backpack or purse. Alternatively, schedule a daily high-calorie snack that you consume at the same time every day -- such as between lunch and dinner or before bed. Examples include a smoothie made with fruit, whole milk and yogurt or a bowl of granola topped with a sliced banana and milk.