Whether you are underweight or just tired of being the skinny guy at the gym, the top nutrition strategies to gain healthy weight remain the same - eat enough food and the right types of food to gain weight. Even though putting on weight can feel challenging for some, the process does not need to be complicated. Ignore the bro science and simplify your health goals by focusing your energy on habits that are going to move the needle.
Here’s your no-nonsense, go-to guide for how to gain weight as fast as possible.
Are You Underweight? How to Tell.
Being skinny is one thing, being underweight is another. Just as being overweight can increase your risk of chronic disease and poor health outcomes, being underweight is often associated with malnutrition, poor bone health, and fertility issues (1,2,3,4).
The easiest way to tell if you are under a normal body weight for your height and age is by checking your body mass index (BMI). A BMI below the normal range could mean you are underweight, but ultimately you’ll want to check in with your doctor or a registered dietitian for more guidance.
Get your BMI in less than a minute using this free BMI calculator.
The Reason Why You’re Underweight or Not Gaining Weight
So you’re strength training, eating massive amounts of protein and not seeing progress, what gives? The bottom line is: you’re not eating enough food.
At the most basic level, weight gain and weight loss are a calories game. If you aren’t eating enough calories to gain weight, it does not matter what you eat or how many times you hit the weights, it’s just not going to happen for you.
Outside of basic physics, individual health factors can also play a role. Certain medications, health conditions, or your genetic predisposition can make gaining weight an uphill battle for some, requiring a bit of dedication in the process. Mainly learning to eat even when you’re not hungry, and to the point of being uncomfortably full. Regardless, step one always remains the same - eat more food.
How Many Calories Do You Need to Gain Weight?
I know what you are thinking - I am going to eat a ton of food and gain weight as quickly as possible. But don't go overboard just yet, your goal is to gain healthy weight, not just body fat. The number of extra calories you need to gain weight might surprise you.
You'll need to start by figuring out how many calories you burn each day and then look at increasing your intake from there. This might take a bit of trial and error.
You can quickly estimate your total daily energy needs using an online calorie calculator like the one below - be sure to include any planned training in your estimated daily calorie needs for maintenance.
The amount of calories you should add to your estimated daily intake to gain weight can depend on your starting fitness level and body composition. If you are underweight and struggle with putting on pounds, you’ll likely need more calories than someone looking to add some additional muscle mass to an already healthy frame.
For some, increasing calories by 5 to 10% (or roughly 100 to 300 calories a day) is enough to support additional lean muscle growth. While others may need to increase their calories as much as 20% or more to gain weight.
For a 2,500 calorie diet this would mean an increase of 125 to 250 calories a day - leading to 0.25 to 0.5 pounds of weight gain a week.
Professional bodybuilders, those looking to add some serious mass, or those maintaining a heavier weight, could easily need to eat a very high-calorie diet. But even at 300 pounds, many will top out around 6,000 calories per day. And their additional calorie needs for lean gains is still relatively small comparatively. Keep in mind that even pregnant women only need to eat an additional 300 to 500 calories a day and they are growing a tiny human being.
For beginner lifters or skinny people, a higher increase, eating an extra 300 to 500 calories a day might be more appropriate. And this additional increase would lead to 0.5 to 1 pound of weight gain per week.
But, of course, all of this can still depend on individual differences. If it is particularly hard for you to gain weight or you aren't gaining any weight after 3 to 4 weeks using a moderate calorie increase, you can up this amount. An additional 1,000 calories a day would put you at a rapid weight gain of 2 pounds per week, but this isn't recommended for everyone.
What Eating 300 Calories of Healthy Food Looks Like:
Using Trifecta A La Carte options, the following options will grab you an extra 300 calories of nutrient-dense foods and help you gain weight the healthy way:
- 8 oz oatmeal with raisins
- 2 bison burgers
- 4 eggs
- 4 oz sweet potatoes + 4 oz salmon
- 4 oz basa, 4 oz brown rice and veggies (classic meal)
The Best Types of Food to Eat for Weight Gain
The amount of food you eat is going to be the most important factor in helping you gain weight, but the quality of your choices is also worth paying attention to.
Eating a crappy diet is not only going to make you feel a little run down but can also affect your workouts, promote more fat gain than muscle, and cause potential health problems down the road.
Instead of eating whatever you want, aim to eat clean by opting for more healthy foods made with simple ingredients you recognize and cut down on heavily processed foods. Whole foods tend to be rich in the nutrients you need to thrive (aka vitamins and minerals).
They can also help you recover from workouts faster, build muscle, and promote a better mood, energy level, and overall health in general.
However, this doesn't mean you have to eat perfect 100% of the time - it's about consistency and overall balance.
Not to mention, when calorie needs are high, it can be challenging to stick to only filling, whole foods. In this case, adding more refined carbs and quick sources of energy can help. This is also where high-fat and energy-dense foods come into play.
7 Eating Strategies for Skinny Guys to Gain Healthy Weight
Here are the top nutrition strategies for putting on healthy weight quickly.
1. Eat More Often to Gain Weight
One of the easiest ways to increase your calorie intake is to eat more at each meal and to eat more often. Whether this means more than three meals a day or multiple snacks, every eating occasion is an opportunity to support your weight gain goals. And when you do sit down for food, eat until you're full or even to the point of feeling stuffed.
If you’re finding you’re not hungry or just forgetting to eat, make yourself a schedule. Then add it to your calendar or set an alarm on your phone so you don’t forget.
2. Choose Low Volume Foods to Gain Weight
Low-volume foods are options that pack a lot of calories in a smaller portion, meaning you can consume a lot more energy without having to eat large amounts.
Getting more energy in a smaller package is going to be much easier than trying to live off salads, but this also doesn't mean you have to live off junk foods. There are plenty of healthy foods that can support your increased needs.
Extracting different components from foods, like oils, proteins, and sugars from whole foods, is an easy way to get concentrated macros that can provide a significant source of calories without taking up too much space.
It also allows you to fine-tune your nutrition by choosing the type of bulking macros that work best for your health and your needs.
Healthy high-calorie foods to eat more of include:
- Plant-based oils, 1 tablespoon = 120 calories
- Olives and avocado, 10 olives or 1/2 cup avocado = 120 calories
- Nuts, seeds, and nut butters, 1/4 cup nuts or 2 tablespoons peanut butter = 170 calories
- Full fat cream and cheese, 2 tablespoons cream or 1 oz cheese = 100 calories
- Natural sugars like maple syrup, honey, agave, and molasses, 1 tablespoon = 60 calories
- Whole-grain muffins, pancakes, and waffles, 1 large = 175 to 200 calories
- Dried fruit, 1/4 cup = 100 calories
- Whole milk dairy products like yogurt and milk, 1 cup = 150 calories
- Protein powders, 1 scoop = 120 calories
3. Get Protein At Every Meal to Gain Weight
Eating more food is key in order to gain weight, but the amount of protein you eat is also important. Considering protein is the building block for most of your entire body - especially your lean mass, upping your intake of this macro is usually necessary to put on muscle mass.
In addition, high protein intakes may also support less fat gain during a calorie surplus - making it a lean bulk essential.
A month-long study looking at 1,000 calorie overfeeding with 20% of calories coming from protein, compared to 10 to 14% calories from protein, resulted in roughly half the amount of fat gain with higher protein intakes - the the high protein group gained 2.5 pounds of fat compared to the lower protein group who gained 4.5 pounds (5).
Look for opportunities to add protein at every meal and snack with protein rich foods and supplements.
- Add protein powder to your foods like oatmeal, mashed potatoes, baked goods, pancakes, or glass of milk.
- Swap your sour cream for greek yogurt
- Switch to whole grain or protein pasta
4. Cook With Healthy Fats to Gain Weight
One of the simplest ways to add extra calories to your meals is to cook with healthy fats. Fat is the most calorie-dense macro (providing nine calories per gram) and most foods will absorb the oil in the cooking process. Plus, certain oils, like olive, avocado, and flaxseed oil are associated with positive heart health benefits (6).
Find a plant-based cooking oil you enjoy and use it to coat cooking pots and pans, and season your ingredients. You can even add a drizzle of oil after plating for a bit more flavor and fat.
The best healthy fats to add calories to your day.
5. Use Toppings, Sauces, and Add Ons to Gain Weight
Similar to oil and butter, a lot of toppings and add-on ingredients can help you hit your goals. This is where many of the low-volume foods mentioned above can help. The more add-ons, the more opportunities to add extra calories.
- Top your food with cheese, seeds, nuts, and avocado
- Use mayo on sandwiches and in dips
- Use cream based sauces
- Drizzle maple syrup or honey on your toast or pancakes
6. Track Your Intake to Gain Weight
It's basically impossible to know if you are eating enough food if you aren't measuring your progress. You can easily do this by logging everything you eat and drink using a food tracking app.
Be as precise as possible by avoiding estimating whenever possible. Here are some easy tips you can use to get the most out of your calorie counting app:
- Measuring the amount you are actually consuming using measuring cups and spoons
- Consider weighing your food for even more accuracy
- Include ALL ingredients used, including oils, seasonings, sauces, dressings and toppings
- Track every food and beverage you eat or drink, even small bites and sips count
- Be specific about brands when searching in the app or use bar-code scanning
7. Be Consistent to Gain Weight
Lastly, there is no such thing as progress, growth, or change without consistency. Results don't just happen overnight and gaining healthy weight isn't something you can just put a few weeks of worth into and expect lasting results from.
Staying consistent is probably the most important and yet the hardest part of sticking to any nutrition plan. No surprise that research continues to suggest that consistency is one of the most important factors for success (7). That's why it is key to choose a diet that you know you can stick to!
Build your foundation, keep training regularly, focus on getting your diet right most of the time. Then try to be patient, your results will come!
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