You would think needing to gain weight would be a good problem to have. But if you're struggling to add weight to your frame, and you're looking for foods that help you gain weight quickly, then you know it's not as good as it sounds.
While there's no one food or group of foods that can help you gain weight quickly, increasing your intake of high-calorie, nutrient-dense foods can provide your body with the extra nutrition it needs to make the gains you want.
To gain weight at a healthy rate, add high-calorie, nutrient-dense foods to your diet such as whole grains, eggs, cheese, nuts, seeds, dried fruit, yogurt, milk and avocados.
Realistic Weight-Gain Goals
When you want to add more weight to your frame, your goal is to put on more muscle or increase bone mass, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND). Eating foods to help you gain weight quickly may lead to more fat and water weight, not healthy muscle or more bone mass.
Realistically, you can't add more muscle or bone mass quickly. According to the American Council on Exercise (ACE), how quickly you gain weight depends on a number of factors, including:
- Overall health
- Workout routine
At best, a healthy 20-year old male who works out regularly can gain 2 pounds of muscle mass a month, notes ACE. Being more realistic about your body's ability to gain weight healthfully instead of quickly may help set you up for success, instead of disappointment when you don't make the gains you're expecting. Based on the best muscle gains noted by ACE, aim for a slow and steady weight gain of about 1/4 pound a week.
Add Calories to Make Gains
Calories in food supply your body with energy. In order to gain weight, you need to adjust your calorie equation. Your calorie equation refers to the calories you consume versus the calories you burn.
To lose weight, the calories you take in must be less than the calories you burn, while to maintain your weight your calorie equation must be balanced. When you want to gain weight, you must consume more calories than you burn.
How many calories you need to consume a day to make the gains you want depend on your age, activity, health and gender. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, adult women need anywhere from 1,600 to 2,400 calories a day to maintain their weight, while adult men need 2,000 to 3,000 calories a day for weight maintenance.
If you're not sure how many calories you need a day to keep your weight steady, talk to your doctor or consult with a registered dietitian. You can also determine your weight maintenance calories using an online calorie calculator.
Once you know your maintenance calorie needs, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, recommends bumping up your daily calorie needs by 500 to 1,000 calories a day to help you make those slow, steady gains.
Read more: Formula for Caloric Intake
Weight Gain Foods List
Yes, you need to eat more calories to gain weight, but your weight gain foods list shouldn't be filled with junk food that's high in fat, sugar and salt. These foods can provide your body with the extra calories it needs to gain weight, but none of the nutrients your body needs to support healthy weight gain.
Foods that help you gain weight are high in calories and rich in nutrients. Filling your weight gain foods list with food that provides both calories and essential nutrients ensures your body gets everything it needs to support muscle growth and gains in bone mass.
Your list should include a mix of healthy, high-calorie foods from all the food groups, such as:
- Grains: brown rice, whole-wheat bread, quinoa, oatmeal and whole-grain cereals
- Fruits: fresh, frozen and dried fruit and 100 percent fruit juice
- Vegetables: potatoes, peas, corn and squash
- Proteins: meat, poultry, fish, seafood, eggs, soy and beans
- Dairy: milk, cheese, yogurt, plant-based milk substitutes
- Healthy fats: oils, nuts, seeds, avocados and nut butters
Many of these foods can be used as healthy calorie boosters to maximize both calories and nutrition in the foods you eat. For example, making your oatmeal with milk instead of water, adding sliced avocado to your turkey sandwich, topping your salad with dried fruit and sunflower seeds or sauteing your veggies in oil.
Meal Strategies for Weight Gain
In addition to your weight gain foods list, making a few modifications to how you eat may also help you get the extra calories your body needs to support your weight-gain goals. If your appetite is the reason you're struggling to make gains — whether your appetite is poor or you get full too quickly — you may find eating several small meals throughout the day helps you get those extra weight-gain calories.
You may also find yourself feeling hungrier at meal time if you make a rule to not drink before or while you're eating. Fluids can fill you up and suppress your appetite. The Mayo Clinic suggests drinking your liquids 30 minutes after you eat. Or you can sip on high-calorie drinks, such as juice, milk, or a smoothie, while you eat to get the calories you need.
While drinking with your meals may not help your appetite, you may find drinking your calories easier to manage than eating them, especially between meals. Consider making nutrient-rich smoothies with your favorite fruits and adding milk, yogurt, tofu or nut butters to boost calories and protein. You can also try a ready-made protein shake, but look for brands without a lot of added sugar.
Stay Away From Weight-Gain Gimmicks
No doubt, you've seen the weight-gainer products at your local health food store. These high-calorie supplements for weight gain for females and males may contain as much as 1,250 calories per serving. The makers of these products claim that they can help you gain muscle quickly.
While these supplements may sound like the perfect solution to your problem, it may not be the best way to make the gains you're looking for, says AND. In addition to the hit it takes on your wallet, many of these supplements get a lot of their extra calories from added sugar. Instead of using these high-calorie supplements for weight gain for females and males, it's better to add those extra calories using real food.
Read more: The Best Weight Gain Supplements for Women
Exercise to Gain Muscle
You may think exercise is counterproductive to your goals given that you need to eat more calories than your body burns to gain weight. But exercise can help. Too much aerobic exercise may burn too many calories, but a 10 to 20 minute walk may give your appetite the boost it needs so you can get in those extra calories.
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "Healthy Weight Gain"
- American Council on Exercise: "How Muscle Grows: How to Build Muscle Mass"
- Health.gov: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020: Appendix 2. Estimated Calorie Needs per Day, by Age, Sex and Physical Activity Level"
- University of Nevada, Las Vegas: "Determining Calorie Needs"
- Mayo Clinic: "Underweight? See How to Add Pounds Healthfully"
- American Academy of Family Physicians: "Healthy Ways to Gain Weight if You're Underweight"