Is your weight too low, but your cholesterol high? Older adults and people recovering from illness or injury are among those who may find themselves in this situation. To gain weight but not raise your cholesterol takes the right combination of healthy foods and muscle-building exercises.
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Read more: What Foods to Eat to Gain Weight Quickly
Real Food for Real Success
If you've ever been overweight, being underweight might seem like a great reason to enjoy high-fat fried or sugary foods that used to be off limits. While an occasional treat may not hurt your long-term goals, indulging in "junk" food will put on the wrong kind of weight. Aim to build muscle while you're gaining weight.
The best foods to gain weight without adding cholesterol are high in both calories and nutrients.
"The first step is to focus on nutrient-dense whole plant foods," says Catherine Collings, MD, a cardiologist at El Camino Health in Mountain View, California, and president-elect of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine. "By including foods that are also calorie-dense with healthy fats such as avocados and nuts, you can increase weight without raising cholesterol."
"Don't resort to processed foods, added processed fats or junk foods to add up the calories," Dr. Collings advises. "They may seem like short-term solutions but won't go the distance to support healthy, sustainable, lean body mass and weight."
Some examples of high-calorie, nutrient-dense foods suggested by Mayo Clinic include nuts and nut butters, avocado, olive oil and dried fruit. Limit saturated fats, as those found in cheese, fatty meats, whole milk and full-fat dairy products, which may raise cholesterol, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The right kind of protein can help you gain muscle instead of fat. Dr. Collings recommends high-quality plant-based sources, such as soy from tofu, lentils and beans, quinoa and seeds, such as hemp and chia. "These are all power sources of protein but also rich in fiber, vitamins and minerals in just the right balance," she says.
Read more: Best Vitamins to Gain Weight
Shake Things Up
When you're underweight, you may feel full quickly. That's why Mayo Clinic suggests eating several light meals a day to gain weight. Waiting until after you eat to fill up on beverages can also help you eat more if liquids tend to make you feel full. You may want to try quenching your thirst with homemade fruit smoothies or shakes in addition to water.
In some cases, your doctor or dietitian may recommend trying protein shakes if you're just not up to eating several meals a day. Just make sure to follow your doctor's advice so you don't get too much protein, which can be harmful, especially for people with compromised kidney function.
Harvard Health recommends about 10 to 20 grams of protein per 8-ounce serving, and as little added sugar as possible. (If you're buying a pre-made shake or mix, make sure it's not the first or second ingredient.)
Exercise to Build Muscle
Don't stop exercising just because you're trying to gain weight. But, instead of burning as many calories as possible, focus on building muscle and strength. Using weights or other forms of resistance training can help.
"Include moderate amounts of resistance training, remembering not to aim for high-calorie output," says Dr. Collings.
If you still have trouble gaining weight, or if your cholesterol starts to rise, talk to your doctor. A registered nutritionist can also help create an eating plan that works for you, and a fitness trainer might be helpful for designing an exercise program to help you safely and effectively build muscle mass.
Keep Your Eye on the Right Prize
Remember that your ultimate goal is to be healthier — and that requires a long-term lifestyle, not a quick fix.
Don't fall for shortcuts or binge on unhealthy foods, and don't stop exercising. Just change the way you eat and focus on exercise that builds muscle rather than burning calories. The only way to gain weight is to take in more calories than you burn — but if you do it the wrong way, you may get the wrong results.
As always, talk to your doctor or dietitian before adding any kind of supplement or starting a new diet or exercise regimen.
- Catherine Collings, MD, cardiologist, director of lifestyle medicine, El Camino Health, Mountain View, California, president-elect, American College of Lifestyle Medicine
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Preventing High Cholesterol”
- Mayo Clinic: “Nutrition and Healthy Eating: What’s a good way to gain weight if you’re underweight?”
- Harvard Health: “Keeping Your Weight Stable in Older Age”