You hear a lot of women wistfully wish for a smaller size, but a good number of women have the opposite problem and would benefit from gaining weight. Plenty of weight-loss diet plans exist, but it's harder to find a quality diet plan to help females gain weight.
A weight-gain meal plan contains nutrient-dense, high-calorie foods so that you put on healthy pounds without increasing your risk of chronic disease. Underweight and normal-weight people are still at risk of developing Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
A weight-gain meal plan for women consists of whole, nutrient-dense foods that are also high in calories. Focus on lean proteins, such as flank steak; whole-grain carbohydrates, such as brown rice; and healthy fats, such as nuts.
Underweight and the Health Implications
If you have a body mass index, or BMI, of 18.5 or lower, you're considered underweight. Determine your body mass index by using a calculator from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While some women do just fine at a lighter weight, weighing too little can affect the immune systems, bone mass and energy levels of many females.
- Irregular menstrual cycles: When you weigh too little and your body fat is low, your body may stop ovulating. A regular period signals your body is in good health. If you don't have your period regularly, it's a sign something may be wrong with your health.
- Infertility: Women who are underweight often have a harder time getting pregnant due to irregular ovulation.
- Low bone density: When you're underweight, your body has a harder time laying down bone, which puts you at greater risk of osteoporosis later in life.
- Malnutrition: If you're underweight due to poor food intake, you're at a greater risk of not getting the vitamins and minerals you need to support good health. Anemia, a weakened immune system and fatigue may result.
- Mood disorders: Research published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research in July 2018 found that underweight people were at a greater risk of self-reported psychological distress than people of a normal weight.
A study published in Medicine in December 2017 found that having a BMI below 18.5 may be an independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease, too, especially if you're younger than 60.
Read more: Health Risks of a Low BMI
Being underweight can also threaten your life. Research published in Health and Quality of Life Outcomes in October 2017 showed that being underweight was associated with excess mortality; the thinner you are, the greater the risk of early death, especially if you're 38 or older.
Every woman has her own individual body type, and some people are just naturally thinner than others. But, you may also be underweight due to an overactive thyroid or Type 1 diabetes. Digestive problems, such as Crohn's disease, can cause unwanted weight loss as can other diseases like viral hepatitis or cancer.
If you abuse substances or you're under a lot of stress, your appetite may be low and you won't have natural reminders to eat. Certain medications can also reduce your appetite. Older women are at a greater risk of being underweight too. Adopting behaviors, such as eating disorders or overexercising, can also lead to being too thin.
Read more: Foods to Aid Low Appetite
Weight Gain Program No-Nos
Even if you're on a weight-gain program for medical necessity — because adding healthy pounds will help improve your health, nutrient intake and quality of life — you don't have permission to binge on junk food.
Yes, junk food does have concentrated calories that may result in weight gain, but it doesn't offer your body any substantial nutrients that are also needed to boost your health, explains the American Academy of Family Physicians. Junk food — think chips, snack mixes, fast food and sugary desserts — can still harm your body and cause ill health.
Also watch out for "quick-fix" supplements that promise to help you gain weight easily. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics warns you should avoid these expensive supplements because they're usually making promises just too good to be true.
Read more: The 10 Worst Foods You Can Buy
Weight-Gain Diet Program
A diet plan to gain weight for females doesn't exist, meaning there's not a one-size-fits-all program. Your weight-gain diet program depends on your individual constitution, weight-gain goals, lifestyle and health. But certain strategies are a part of just about every weight-gain program.
Eat more nutrient-dense foods that supply your body with the vitamins, minerals and other important compounds that boost your health. You don't need to make drastic dietary changes. Instead, add nuts or seeds to your salads or dip fruit in nut butter. Top grains with avocado or a drizzle of olive oil. Have an extra serving of protein-rich lean meat, such as flank steak or chicken breast.
Make snacks a priority, too. Carry dried fruit and nut bars in your purse or backpack; stash an extra yogurt and banana in the office fridge; pack almonds and raisins for a late-day nosh. These snacks are calorically dense but also nutritious since they contain healthy unsaturated fats, protein and whole grains.
Many people who are underweight have trouble stimulating their appetite and, frankly, just aren't hungry enough to take in the calories they need. Mini-meals are a solution for women who have a poor appetite. Have a small meal six to eight times during the day — in other words, graze — to keep your calorie intake up. Also avoid drinking water or other fluid with meals. An excess volume of liquids can fill you up and dampen your appetite more, explains the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
And, no weight-gain program is complete without exercise. Yes, exercise burns calories, but it also promotes good health in most cases. (If you're underweight due to an eating disorder and your doctor has discouraged exercise, follow her orders, first and foremost.) Weight-training is particularly beneficial because it can help you add weight with healthy muscle mass.
The American Council on Exercise confirms that, for most women, using a weight that brings your muscle to failure within eight to 12 repetitions stimulates the optimal hormonal response for muscle growth. For weight gain, work all the major muscle groups with one to three (or more sets) of an exercise using this heavy weight. The major muscle group areas are the back, chest, legs, abdominals, arms, hips and shoulders.
Weight-Gain Program Meals
Weight-gain meals should be developed to meet your personal preferences, caloric needs, health conditions and weight-gain goals. If you're trying to add muscle mass, for example, you'll benefit from adding substantial protein to up your caloric intake.
Examples of foods good for weight gain that are recommended by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics include:
- Breakfast: Oatmeal cooked in milk (rather than water); scrambled eggs topped with grated cheese; a whole-grain muffin topped with almond butter
- Lunch: Tacos made with chicken, black beans, veggies and avocado; turkey sandwich on hearty whole-grain bread with sliced cheese and avocado; vegetable salad topped with chicken, nuts and olive oil
- Snacks: Full-fat yogurt, nuts and sunflower seeds
- Dinner: Salmon or lean steak; sweet potatoes; mashed potatoes made with whole-milk and dry milk powder; casseroles made with cheese and whole-milk powder; chili topped with shredded cheese
A dietitian or nutritionist can help you develop an eating plan that includes the foods you enjoy.
- Office on Women's Health: "Underweight"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Defining Adult Overweight and Obesity"
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "Healthy Weight Gain"
- Health and Quality of Life Outcomes: "What Is the Impact of Underweight on Self-Reported Health Trajectories and Mortality Rates: A Cohort Study"
- Medicine: "Underweight: Another Risk Factor for Cardiovascular Disease?"
- American Academy of Family Physicians: "Healthy Ways to Gain Weight If You're Underweight"
- American Council on Exercise: "What Exercises Should I Perform If I'm Trying to Gain Weight?"
- American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists: "Female Athlete Triad"
- Journal of Psychiatric Research: "Association of Depression With Body Mass Index Classification, Metabolic Disease, and Lifestyle: A Web-Based Survey Involving 11,876 Japanese People"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Adult BMI Calculator"