There's no shortage of low-calorie meal replacement shakes, but what should you do when you're looking for the best meal replacement shakes for weight gain? There are options, but most pre-made high-calorie meal replacement shakes are full of high-fructose corn syrup and artificial ingredients.
While these meal replacements may help you gain weight since they provide extra calories, they're not the best route when it comes to overall health. If you want a healthy, high-calorie meal replacement, it's best to make your own at home with whole foods and nutrient-dense ingredients that provide lots of vitamins and minerals in addition to calories.
Commercial High Calorie Meal Replacement
In today's world, there's a lot of focus on the dangers of being overweight. Extra weight and obesity are connected to a host of health problems like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, sleep apnea and even certain types of cancer. But being underweight actually comes with its own set of problems, too. Still, that doesn't mean that any weight gain is good weight gain.
Commercial meal replacements that you can buy on most grocery store shelves seem like an easy solution to getting in some extra calories and putting on weight, but they're often full of undesirable ingredients that contribute calories, but don't provide any health benefits. One of these ingredients is high-fructose corn syrup.
High-fructose corn syrup certainly prompts weight gain, but that weight is more likely to collect in the abdomen, where it negatively affects health. According to a report that was published in Diabetes in February 2015, fructose also contributes to fatty liver and chronic inflammation. High-fructose corn syrup is also connected to insulin resistance, Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, according to Cleveland Clinic.
Even if a commercial meal replacement doesn't contain high-fructose corn syrup, it likely contains sugar or artificial sweeteners, which come with their own health problems. While it may be possible to find a commercial meal replacement that has decent ingredients, it's difficult. It's much easier — and generally more cost effective — to make your own at home.
Calculate Your Calorie Needs
When you're trying to gain weight and add some extra calories to your day, the first thing you need to do is figure out how many calories you actually need. To make things easy, you can use LIVESTRONG's MyPlate calorie counter to calculate exactly how many daily calories it would take to gain anywhere from 0.5 to 2 pounds per week for your age, height, weight and gender.
This is important since the amount of calories you need to gain weight can vary widely depending on your current weight and height and your gender. For example, a 150-pound female who's 5 feet 6 inches tall and wants to gain 1 pound per week would need to consume 2,171 calories each day to hit that goal. However, a 140-pound male who's 5 feet 4 inches tall and wants to gain 1 pound per week needs to take in 2,277 calories per day.
Once you figure out how many calories you need to consume each day to meet your weight gain goals, you can make your own homemade high-calorie meal replacement by following a basic template that includes a milk base, a healthy fat and a source of protein. You can also add other ingredients, like berries, a banana, spinach or flaxseeds, to make the meal replacement more filling and boost its nutritional value.
Read more: A Weight-Gain Diet to Gain 2 Lbs. per Week
Start with a Milk Base
A good high-calorie meal replacement starts with some kind of milk base. If you're trying to gain weight, you'll want something that's high in calories and good fats. That means skipping the skim milk and almond milk and going for whole milk or full-fat coconut milk instead.
While skim milk provides just 83 calories and 0.2 grams of fat per cup, whole milk has 149 calories and 7.9 grams of fat for the same amount. If you're worried about the saturated fat in whole milk, you don't have to be. According to a review that was published in Advances in Nutrition in May 2012, while the saturated fat in dairy products may raise LDL (often referred to as "bad cholesterol") levels, it also appears to raise HDL (or "good cholesterol"), too.
This helps maintain a healthy "bad" cholesterol to "good" cholesterol ratio. Because of this — and based on their review of several observational studies — the researchers concluded that dairy fat isn't necessarily connected to an increased risk of heart disease or stroke when included as part of a healthy diet.
Another review that was published in Foods in March 2018 backed up these findings by stating that not only do dairy products have a neutral effect on heart disease, but they're also rich sources of several vitamins and minerals, including:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin B6
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin K
Because of this, adding full-fat dairy milk to your high-calorie meal replacement not only adds a significant amount of calories, it adds important nutrients that can help you gain weight in a healthy way. But keep in mind that not all dairy products are created equally.
Milk that comes from grass-fed cows has significantly higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid (or CLA) — a fatty acid that helps keep your blood pressure and blood sugar within healthy ranges — than milk from conventional cows. On the flip side, conventional milk is higher in omega-6 fatty acids, which can promote inflammation when consumed in excess. If you can find it — and your budget allows — choose grass-fed milk over conventional milk.
That being said, if you prefer to go dairy-free, opt for full-fat coconut milk (the kind you find in a can, not a carton or plastic bottle) instead. Full-fat coconut milk, which is rich in medium-chain triglycerides, contains 360 calories per cup, even more than a cup of whole milk.
Add a Fat
While both whole milk and coconut milk add some fat to your homemade meal replacement drink, you can up the calorie count and the fat content even more by including additional healthy fats. Some good healthy fat choices include:
As an added bonus, avocado thickens the blended meal replacement a bit and gives you a nice smooth texture. Some manufacturers are making things even easier for you by providing frozen avocado slices that you can find in your grocery store freezer section, right near the fruit. You can use those in place of fresh avocado, or cut an avocado into slices and freeze them to use later.
If you choose peanut butter, or any other type of nut butter, make sure you're checking the ingredients and getting an unsweetened version. Many commercial nut butters are sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup or too much sugar, just like pre-made high-calorie meal replacement shakes, and those aren't the best types of calories to add.
Read more: What Foods to Eat to Gain Weight Quickly?
Choose a Protein
The next step in making a high-calorie meal replacement shake is a good source of protein. Protein keeps you full and helps you build lean muscle mass when you're also incorporating exercise into your weight gain routine.
Some good high-calorie options for protein are:
If you put it all together and make a homemade meal replacement that includes 1 cup of full-fat coconut milk, an ounce of macadamia nuts, one-half cup Greek yogurt and two scoops of whey protein powder, you're looking at 743 calories just for those four nutrient-dense ingredients.
You can also blend in a large frozen banana, which adds an extra 121 calories, loads of potassium and 4 grams of fiber. That means you'll get 864 calories with one homemade meal replacement. Plus, you don't have to worry about getting any artificial ingredients or sweeteners that promote the wrong type of weight gain.
Other Tips for Gaining Weight
In addition to adding more nutrient-dense calories to your day, there are some other things you can do to make sure that the weight you're gaining is healthy weight. Incorporating strength training into your exercise routine can ensure that the extra calories help you build lean muscle mass, which improves your overall body composition and your health.
The American Council on Exercise (ACE) recommends specifically focusing on compound exercises, which involve activating more than one joint and muscle group at time. Squats, lunges and barbell deadlifts are examples of compound exercises that work several different muscle groups. You won't see immediate results, but stick with it. According to the Cleveland Clinic, it will take at least a month or two for strength training to add enough lean muscle mass to show up on the scale.
Timing of your meal replacement can play a role, too. Researchers from one study that was published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition in August 2017 found that consuming a high-quality protein source within two hours of a strength-training workout can increase muscle protein synthesis (or the creation of new muscle). They also found that consuming protein every three to four hours has the same positive effect on muscle.
The best meal replacement program includes homemade high-calorie meal replacement shakes —evenly spaced throughout the day — along with with healthy, high-protein snacks and regular strength training. If you're worried about your weight or how to gain weight in a healthy way, talk to your doctor or a nutritionist who can help design a specific program for you.
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "Health Risks of Being Overweight"
- USDA: "Avocado, Raw"
- USDA: "Coconut Oil"
- USDA: "Peanut Butter"
- USDA: "Nuts, Macadamia Nuts, Raw"
- Cleveland Clinic: "I Just Started Exercising — Why Am I Gaining Weight?"
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: "International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: Nutrient Timing"
- University of Minnesota Extension: "Grass-Fed Cows Produce Healthier Milk"
- Obesity Research & Clinical Practice: "Health Benefits of Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA)"
- Foods: "Dairy Fats and Cardiovascular Disease: Do We Really Need to Be Concerned?"
- Advances in Nutrition: "Influence of Dairy Product and Milk Fat Consumption on Cardiovascular Disease Risk: A Review of the Evidence"
- American Council on Exercise: "What Exercises Should I Perform If I'm Trying to Gain Weight?"
- USDA: "Milk, Fat Free (Skim)"
- USDA: "Milk, Whole"
- USDA: "Coconut Milk"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Avoid the Hidden Dangers of High Fructose Corn Syrup"
- Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health: "J-Shapedness: An Often Missed, Often Miscalculated Relation: The Example of Weight and Mortality"
- USDA: "Tera's Whey, Unsweetened Whey Protein Isolate"
- USDA: "Cheese, Cottage"
- USDA: "Yogurt, Greek, Plain, Whole Milk"
- USDA: "Bananas, Raw"
- Diabetes: "Adiponectin Resistance and Proinflammatory Changes in the Visceral Adipose Tissue Induced by Fructose Consumption via Ketohexokinase-Dependent Pathway"