Increasing your caloric intake helps you gain weight. To help you put on quality pounds in the form of lean muscle, make the calories come from healthy sources. If you're underweight because of injury, surgery or illness, adding nutrient-rich calories will help you heal. Even if you simply want to look healthier and feel more energetic, having a balanced meal plan, along with engaging in appropriate exercise, will help you reach your goals.
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Healthy Overview of an Increased Calorie Diet
Increase your calories by eating nutrient-rich, energy-dense foods from all the major food groups. Aim for at least five servings of fruits and vegetables per day. Starchy foods such as corn, sweet potatoes and bananas are higher calorie choices, compared to watery, fibrous foods like lettuce or celery.
Increase the amount of protein you eat daily too, as doing so will support your effort to build and maintain lean muscle -- especially if you're also working out at the gym. Aim for about 0.55 grams of protein per pound of your body weight daily -- this represents an increase over the 0.36 gram per pound minimum recommended for the average diet. Choose types low in saturated fat such as salmon, chicken, turkey, lean steak and beans. Nuts and seeds also provide protein along with healthy fats, which are helpful when you're trying to eat more calories. Other healthy unsaturated fats include olive oil and avocados.
Dairy, such as cheese and yogurt, and whole grains, such as brown rice and quinoa, further boost your calorie intake in nutritious ways.
Too many calories from sugars, refined flours and saturated fats make you vulnerable to the illnesses associated with over-consumption of these foods, even if you're underweight. Pastries, ice cream, soda, chips, fast food and white bread are all sources of calories, but they offer little nutrition to benefit your health.
Increase Calories at Meal Time
An obvious way to increase calories at meals is to increase your portion sizes. For example, to add 216 calories, have 2 cups of brown rice instead of 1 cup at lunch. At dinner, choose a large -- instead of a small -- baked potato to gain 156 calories, and eat three extra ounces of flank steak, about the size of your palm, to add 172 calories.
Cook 1/2 cup instead of 1/3 cup of dry oats for cereal or add an extra egg to your omelet for a bigger breakfast. Consider your choices at meals, too, and go for the more calorie-dense option when possible. Choose a sandwich on a large whole-grain roll rather than on flat bread or opt for chili instead of a broth-based soup. These minor increases in portion size and changes in choice add up and result in a net addition of 250 to 500 calories per day -- enough to gain 1/2 to 1 pound per week.
Calorie Additions Without Increasing Portions
If you're maxed out on food intake and you don't have the appetite for larger servings, make small additions to existing meals to boost the calorie intake. For example, cook hot cereal in milk instead of water, sprinkle extra shredded cheese over eggs or add sunflower seeds to a salad.
These small additions also add up calorie-wise. Toss pasta in a tablespoon of olive oil before adding sauce to provide an additional 124 calories; chop two medjool dates into a bowl of cold cereal for 132 more calories; and add 1/4 cup of whole, dry milk powder to liquid milk, casseroles or cereal for another 159 calories. Avocado on a salad or sandwich, walnuts in cereal, cashews in a stir-fry and peanut butter on an apple are other ways to raise caloric intake with small additions of food that won't fill you up too much.
Make Snacks Count, Calorically
Plan on having three meals and three snacks if possible, every two to four hours. A missed meal or snack is a missed opportunity to increase your caloric intake. Have one snack between breakfast and lunch, one between lunch and dinner and one before bed.
Grabbing a piece of low-fat string cheese or a handful of grapes isn't going to be enough to notably boost your caloric intake. Choose 1/2 cup of nuts for 400 calories, a sandwich on whole-wheat bread with 2 tablespoons of peanut butter for 350 calories or 1 cup of granola in milk for 550 calories. Dried fruit, a smoothie made with pineapple, yogurt and hummus with whole-grain pita are other calorically dense choices. Instead of snacking at regular intervals, you could also graze all day on nuts, dried fruit or pretzels.
Drinking your calories also counts toward your overall caloric intake. Choose nutritious drinks such as milk or 100 percent fruit juice for 100 to 150 calories per 8 ounces. Limit your juice consumption, however, as it contains quite a bit of sugar.
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Healthy Weight Gain
- CNN: How Should I Eat to Build Muscle Mass?
- Today's Dietitian: Underweight: A Heavy Concern
- HealthAliciousNess: Brown Rice, Potatoes, Steak
- HealthAliciousNess: Oil, Dates, Dry Milk
- McKinley Health Center: Gaining Weight the Healthy Way
- NHS: Underweight Teen Boys