Healthy Ways to Gain Weight

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egg and avocado bowl

While the majority of our culture obsesses over weight loss and diets, there are groups of people focused on exactly the opposite. Weight gain may improve health in a number of situations: when dealing with an eating disorder or recovering from an illness, if you're a serious athlete, dealing with metabolic changes, or are in a period of growth (e.g., puberty or pregnancy). However, if you're looking for weight-gain tips, it's often hard to find a healthy or sustainable solution. Instead, we see actors who eat doughnuts for three months straight to put on weight, fast-food experiments and variations on a protein-powder diet. The options are endless, but weight gain doesn't have to be a stunt or a gimmick—and it doesn't have to come at the cost of your health.

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Weight gain happens when our energy intake exceeds our body's needs. Despite common cultural perceptions, there are ample reasons why gaining weight can be beneficial. "Anyone may benefit from increasing lean muscle mass to help maintain their optimal resting metabolic rate," says registered dietitian and sports specialist Lauren Trocchio. Weight gain or loss is no longer believed to be as simple as eating 500 calories more or less each day—following the so-called 3,500-calorie rule—to achieve weekly weight goals. Your metabolism fluctuates in response to influences like caloric intake, shifts in lean body mass, illness and stress (to name a few), all of which can change how much energy your body needs to maintain its weight. The bottom line is that exceeding your body's energy needs will result in weight gain. This may be achieved by eating more, exercising less or changing your workout routine.

Registered dietitian and eating disorder recovery specialist Emily Braaten cautions against quick fixes. "Just like [healthy] weight loss, weight gain should be a slow and steady process," she notes. And you may want to stay away from mainstream media geared toward weight maintenance: "[Advice to] eat low-fat dairy, exercise regularly or drink more water can be detrimental when the goal is weight gain," Braaten says.

Instead, try these six strategies and food swaps to steadily gain weight and keep your body healthy:

1. Don't Skimp on Grains

Chicken, Peppers & Pasta Casserole

Recipe to Try: Chicken, Peppers & Pasta Casserole

Carbohydrates—found in grains, starchy vegetables, legumes, nuts, fruits and sugars—are the body's preferred energy source, and should make up nearly 50 percent of our daily caloric intake. The body is very efficient at breaking down carbohydrates into usable energy. Sports dietitian Stephanie Mull notes, "If adequate carbohydrate is being consumed, then the body will have reserves to fuel an active lifestyle." You may also notice fewer cravings for sweets, increased energy and better sleep when you're eating the right amount of carbs.

Food swaps to eat more calories:

• Whole-wheat bagel instead of an English muffin or slice of toast
• Oatmeal topped with dried fruit and nuts instead of a bowl of cereal
• Brown rice instead of cauliflower "rice"
• Whole-grain pasta instead of vegetable "noodles"
• Sandwich bread instead of tortillas or lettuce wraps

2. Add in Extra Fats

West Coast Avocado Toast

Recipe to Try: West Coast Avocado Toast

At 9 calories per gram, fat is a far more energy-dense food than carbohydrates or proteins, which only have 4 calories per gram. As a result, adding a little extra fat to your diet can go a long way toward weight gain. As we continue to move away from the fat-phobic era, many more home cooks are embracing oils. But old habits die hard; it's easy to skimp on oil in a nice nonstick pan, or skip it entirely in favor of steaming or dry-roasting. Yet that's also skimping on healthy fats and their related health benefits. The American Heart Association recommends keeping fat intake at 25 to 35 percent of total calories, and prioritizing healthier unsaturated fats, such as olive or canola oil, avocado and nuts. Use a variety of cooking oils and butter to add both unsaturated fat and a limited amount of saturated fat to your meals.

Food swaps to eat more calories:

• Use olive oil instead of cooking oil spray
• Sauté in butter instead of steaming with water
• Drizzle oil on vegetables instead of dry-roasting
• Choose oil-packed canned fish instead of water- or dry-packed
• Layer avocado slices on your sandwich instead of using mustard or mayo
• Rub infused oil into meats, poultry or fish instead of dry seasoning
• Use sliced or crushed nuts on a salad instead of croutons

3. Opt for Full-Fat Dairy Products

Brussels Sprouts & Pepperoni Pizza

Recipe to Try: Brussels Sprouts & Pepperoni Pizza

Full-fat dairy products provide more energy (because of the extra fat). Plus, they often have less added sugars or sweeteners since the fat helps add flavor. Recent studies have indicated that diets with full-fat dairy are either associated with a reduced risk of heart and metabolic diseases, or have no association with an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases, as once thought.

Food swaps to eat more calories:

• Whole-milk plain yogurt instead of nonfat yogurt
• Cream-based soup instead of broth
• Whole milk added to a smoothie instead of water
• Full-fat cheese instead of low- or nonfat cheese products

4. Add a Variety of Food Toppings

Jason Mraz's Guacamole

Recipe to Try: Jason Mraz's Guacamole

Seeking out a variety of flavors and textures to accent your food is a tasty way to boost calories. It's easy to add extra crunch or a sweet taste with chopped nuts, dry cereal or granola, diced vegetables or a fruit salsa. These toppings contribute nutrient-dense calories, and make your meals a little more exciting. Condiments, sauces and dressings are another easy way to add energy to any meal or snack. Whether you're eating raw vegetables, pasta or roasted protein, a sauce can add a lot of flavor and nutrients to the dish. While some condiments and dressings are loaded with added sugars, plenty of others are oil-based, nutrient-dense and easy to make at home.

Food swaps to eat more calories:

• Chopped nuts on salads instead of cucumber chunks
• Granola mixed with yogurt instead of plain yogurt
• Fruit salsa on meats, chicken or fish instead of dry seasoning
• Vinaigrette dressing instead of lemon juice on a salad
• Pesto instead of dry seasoning on roasted chicken or fish
• Peanut or cashew sauce instead of plain sesame oil on a stir-fry mix
• Hummus dip instead of plain raw vegetables
• Guacamole instead of salsa with tortilla chips

5. Eat More Low-Volume, Calorie-Dense Foods

Red Cabbage Salad with Blue Cheese & Maple-Glazed Walnuts

Recipe to Try: Red Cabbage Salad with Blue Cheese & Maple-Glazed Walnuts

Some plant-based foods have a high volume of water but low energy density. Cucumbers, watermelon and salad greens are a few examples—they're low in calories but high in nutrients. The dietary fiber and natural water content will fill you up without adding any substantial energy to the meal. If healthy weight gain is the goal, aim for nutrient- and energy-dense foods. That means you get more energy with less volume, so you don't feel full too quickly. You might also try drinking some of your calories in a smoothie or in a glass of juice.

Food swaps to eat more calories:

• Dried fruit (with little or no added sugars) instead of fresh fruit
• Roasted vegetables with oil instead of salad • Nuts or seeds on a salad instead of another crunchy vegetable
• Fruit-and-milk smoothie in addition to a bowl of cereal or oatmeal
• Whole fruit and vegetable juice in addition to a snack bar

6. Time Your Meals for Maximum Energy Intake

Berry & Flax Smoothie

Recipe to Try: Berry & Flax Smoothie

Athletes should eat early and often. That's good advice for fueling a long workout, but can also apply to your daily routine when you're trying to gain weight. Eat before you feel famished—that ravenous hunger is a sign from your body that you've waited too long to eat. Early hunger signs may be hard to detect initially. If it's been more than four hours since your last meal, or two to three hours since a snack, it's probably time to eat. Tune in to sense light hunger pangs in your stomach, difficulty concentrating or a shift in your mood. Try to eat before your stomach is growling. A few tips:

• Eat three meals each day
• Eat small snacks between meals
• Eat a small snack before a workout
• Eat a snack or meal immediately after a workout
• Eat carbohydrates during your workout if you're exercising for longer than 60 minutes
• Eat a small snack at night before bed if you don't feel satisfied by your dinner

Bottom Line

"It's unrealistic to expect more than a 1- to 2-pound change [in weight] each week," notes Braaten. She recommends weighing in no more than once per week, and making sure weigh-ins are done under consistent circumstances (e.g., in the morning, immediately upon waking). Working with a registered dietitian, especially at the beginning of your weight-gain efforts, will help keep you healthy. Tracking food intake can also be a helpful way to objectively monitor nutrients, Mull says: "Understanding what a typical intake provides in terms of macronutrients and how that accumulates over the course of the day is the most beneficial thing someone can learn." A dietitian can help you find a healthy balance of carbohydrates, fats and proteins, and make sure you consume adequate vitamins and minerals for your lifestyle.

Whatever your goals, healthy weight gain is possible and, in some cases, beneficial. Start with these swaps, expect steady progress and consult with both nutrition and health professionals along the way.

Related:
Healthy Snack Recipes
Healthy Breakfast Recipes
Healthy Pasta Recipes

Watch: How to Make West Coast Avocado Toast

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