Healthspan staff August 06, 2018

When it comes to weight, most people are focused on losing it. But for some, the problem is actually the opposite. Weight gain is often pursued for a number of different reasons, but it can be too easy to do so in a way that’s detrimental to your overall health. There are some important things you should be aware of when trying to gain weight, and so here we look at why gaining weight healthily is important, and how to go about it.

How not to gain weight

When we think about weight gain, we often think this means eating lots of high-calorie, high-sugar and high-fat junk foods. But this isn’t the best approach if you’re wanting to maintain your weight gain, and stay healthy at the same time.1

If you consume the majority of your calories from processed foods, then you’re likely to gain a fair amount of fat, and little-to-no muscle — which can ultimately be problematic for your health.2 This can be particularly concerning if the fat gained is visceral fat, which is fat stored around the organs, as it’s linked to an increased risk of a number of chronic disease, including heart disease and type 2 diabetes.3

The bottom line is that the quality of your food is just as important as how much you eat when trying to gain weight. It can be fine to indulge in the occasional treat, but it’s important to make sure that unhealthy foods aren’t a regular part of your day-to-day food intake.

Why is healthy weight gain important?

There are a number of reasons why you might wish to gain weight. But importantly, you should make sure to aim for a weight that’s healthy for your body.

Low body weight is associated with a number of chronic health conditions, including osteoporosis, irregular periods, infertility, impaired immunity and chronic fatigue. If you’re on the lower end of your ideal weight, then your body might also exhibit other symptoms like low muscle mass, hair loss and a variety of skin conditions.4

Healthy weight gain and diet

Assuming you don’t have any prior health concerns or conditions, the first step in trying to gain weight is to look at your diet and question: are you getting enough calories?

In order to gain weight, you need to consume more energy than your body is burning. This means you need to know roughly how many calories you’re consuming daily, and how much energy your body uses. There are many different formulas that calculate your energy expenditure, and lots can be found online. Whichever you choose, it’s important to take that base intake and then add extra calories onto it to induce weight gain. As a starting point, try adding 250 to 500 calories per day — so if your daily expenditure is 2000 calories daily, aim for 2250 to 2500.

The process of counting calories might be difficult at first, but it’s an important step in making sure you don’t go overboard with your calorie intake — or conversely, that you don’t eat too little. There are a number of apps that can help you keep track of this, or you could resort to an old-fashioned food diary.

Tips to tweak your diet for weight gain

You shouldn’t base your diet on unhealthy junk foods, so what exactly should you eat? Ultimately, it’s important that you consume a range of nutrient-dense foods in order to keep your body healthy while you gain weight. There are a number of different foods that can help you achieve this, including:

  • Healthy oils such as olive, avocado, and coconut oil
  • Oily fish
  • Avocado
  • Dark chocolate
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Nut and seed butters such as peanut butter and tahini
  • Coconut milk
  • Natural unsweetened yoghurt
  • Smoothies with high-calorie ingredients

If you find yourself getting overwhelmed by the amount of food you need to eat to gain weight, you might find it helpful to increase the frequency of your meals. By consuming multiple mini meals instead of three large meals, your body can get a chance to process and digest the food properly, which might in turn help you to eat more.

If you do prefer to stick to three meals per day, though, make sure you’re adding in high-calorie healthy snacks between meals. Small foods, like mixing yogurt with nut butter as a morning snack, and a smoothie in the afternoon, can help you to reach your goal without feeling overwhelmed with how much you need to eat.

It can also help to add smoothies or protein shakes to your diet, as they’re often easier to consume than regular food. Try adding together a few of the foods above: perhaps mixing a tablespoon of nut butter with some coconut milk and Greek yoghurt. This can create a high-calorie meal without leaving you feeling overly full.

Remember, though, it’s vital that these meals are nutrient-packed: think about adding some leafy greens and fruit into your smoothies, or perhaps sprinkle some food over your yoghurt.

Healthy weight gain and exercise

Exercise is still an essential part of a healthy body, even if you’re trying to increase your weight.5 Although exercise burns energy, the right kind can help you to grow muscle. Strength training might be your best bet for gaining weight, as it can help to grow lean muscle. This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to join a gym, however. There are plenty of body-weight exercises that you can do from the comfort of your own home: like push-ups or squats. Start with two to three training sessions per week if you’re new to working out, and increase it as you go along. And luckily, if you are new, it’s often easier to build muscle at this stage than later on.6

Lower-intensity exercise, like yoga and walking, can also help to support your overall health — without burning through calories.7, 8 This can also help to boost your appetite, which might help you to eat more and reach your weight gain goals.

How much weight should I aim to gain?

Everyone’s different, and some people might have a harder time gaining weight than others. A general goal to aim for is around one to two pounds per week, as this can help you to avoid gaining too much or too little.

Ultimately, it’s important to remember that slow and steady wins the race. Even if you’re only gaining half a pound each week, you’re headed in the direction of your goal. It’s much better, in the long run, to gain weight slowly and healthily than to pack it on quickly using junk food. If you’re still struggling to gain weight, though, make sure you get in touch with your local GP, and they can help you get to the bottom of it.

If you'd like to read more about the effect of various diets on your health, as well as find more information on how you can promote good gut health, then head over to our Gut Health advice centre.


References
1Myles, I. A. (2014). Fast food fever: reviewing the impacts of the Western diet on immunity, Nutrition Journal, 13(61)
2Poti, J. M., Braga, B., and Qin, B. (2017). Ultra-processed Food Intake and Obesity: What Really Matters for Health-Processing or Nutrient Content? Current Obesity Reports, 06(04)
3Kim, S. K., Kim, H. J., Hur, K. Y., et al. (2004). Visceral fat thickness measured by ultrasonography can estimate not only visceral obesity but also risks of cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 79(04)
4NHS (2017). Underweight adults, www.nhs.uk
5Erdmann, J., Tahbaz, R., Lippl, F., et al. (2007). Plasma ghrelin levels during exercise - effects of intensity and duration, Regulatory Peptides, 143(01-03)
6Ahtiainen, J. P., Pakarinen, A., Alen, M., et al. (2003). Muscle hypertrophy, hormonal adaptations and strength development during strength training in strength-trained and untrained men, European Journal of Applied Physiology, 89(06)
7Ross, A., and Thomas, S. (2010). The health benefits of yoga and exercise: a review of comparison studies, The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 16(01)
8Walker, K. Z., Piers, L. S., Putt, R. S., et al. (1999). Effects of regular walking on cardiovascular risk factors and body composition in normoglycemic women and women with type 2 diabetes, Diabetes care, 22(4)
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