It is on magazines, tv advertisements, in stores, social media, every celebrity talks about it–even your relatives and best friends can’t seem to get enough of it. It is simply everywhere. You may be wondering, “What is it!?!” “It” is simply weight loss. Weight loss is a topic that everyone seems to talk about and desire to obtain. This is not always a bad thing, but for some people, it is certainly not helpful.

Some people want or even NEED TO GAIN WEIGHT!

There, I said it okay?

At a certain time in my life (fairly recently actually) it was necessary for my health and well being to gain weight. It was hard to find articles and advice on how to gain weight  when nearly every nutrition articles talks about how to cut calories, increase your vegetable intake, and lose weight. Those articles that did talk about weight gain spoke negatively and did nothing but hurt my plummeting body image. I certainly questioned my need to gain weight. If everyone is so concerned about losing weight, shouldn’t I be okay at the weight I am at?

Of course the answer was no, but it was hard to see beyond the media, even harder was to go beyond what acquaintances and close friend would talk about–weight loss.

The very few articles that I did find on ‘how to gain weight’ were recommendations to gorge on unhealthy foods until you feel sick. Okay, they did not actually go to that extreme, but I did not want to sabotage my health further by gaining weight on unhealthy food. Eating unhealthy food such as pizza, ice cream, cake, cookie, etc is good in moderation, but I firmly believe, that even for those who are suffering from an eating disorder –such as I was at that time– should not use unhealthy foods solely to gain weight. I could go into my reasoning behind this, but for now I will stick to the topic of weight gain.

So, can you actually gain weight in a healthy way?

The answer is a firm yes!

Weight Gain in a Healthy Way?

Yes, it is possible to gain weight in a healthy way–it is also much better in the long term if you do so. We live in a society that is often fat-phobic and the process of purposely gaining weight is a taboo subject. This is so much integrated into our culture that we automatically assume that in order to gain weight we need to eat unhealthy foods OR that it is impossible to gain weight on healthy foods. This is simply not true. A person can eat all unhealthy foods and be as thin as a stick. At the same time, someone who only eats healthy foods could be obese. So this “theory” does not really hold up.

How is this?


Calories are not the be all and end all of help. Nor do I believe that you should meticulously count calories to maintain a healthy weight. That said, calories are a unit of energy if you take in more energy than your body can burn you will gain weight, if your body burns more energy than what you take in, you will lose weight. Many factors play a role in the energy burn of your body…the types of food you eat, the activity you do, your age, height, gender, and so on. Just understand that if you want to gain weight you need to take in more energy than your body is burning. Therefore it is possible (and advisable) to do so in a healthy matter.

Reasons You May Need Weight Gain:

There are a few reasons that someone may want to gain weight. I will explain to of them below so you can figure out if you fit into one of these categories. Please keep in mind that these are for those who are normal or underweight. Those who are overweight should not focus on gaining weight–of course in eating disorder recovery, gaining weight when overweight is possible, but it is not necessarily the goal.


Weight Gain for Muscle Mass

Whether you want to gain weight to build muscle bulk or to build lean muscle, you will need to gain weight in order to do so.There is a catch, whenever you build muscle you also build fat. Your body does need a store of fat, but just keep eating junk and you will ONLY BUILD FAT. The fat from unhealthy eating will often be unhealthy visceral fat. It will also leave you tired, lethargic, and…fluffy…

The goals is to work on building muscle while only gaining a minimal amount of fat. This is done by making sure you are performing exercises that help build muscle. Doing cardio won’t help, instead you want to work on body weight exercises, resistance training, and weight training in order to build muscle. Like we discussed before, you also need to be in a caloric surplus. Instead of thinking “let me order some fries and a double cheese bacon burger” you want to think what you can add to your diet. Often, those who seem to not be able to gain weight underestimate how much they are really eating. It is likely harder for them to eat large amount of fruits and vegetables as they get full before eating as much as the calorie surplus demands. To counteract this you could add foods that are calorie dense but don’t take up a lot of room in your stomach.

Instead of drinking only water, include homemade smoothies, and healthy protein shakes. Add three of those a day and you probably just increased your calories by at least 600 without feeling that much more full. Also focus on increasing fats in your diet. When you can, add nut butters, olive or coconut oil, avocado, cheese, or like foods to recipes and meals. Instead of eating a baked potato, slice it up and coat it in oil before baking it in the oven, when choosing your afternoon yogurt, eat a whole milk version. Instead of eating a plain can of tuna add an avocado. There is a multitude of ways to add calories! It is much more simple to think…”what other nutrients can I add?” vs “I have to eat a double cheese bacon dorito burger.”


Weight Gain for Eating Disorder Recovery

Before I go too deep into this topic, I want to make it clear that anyone who has an eating disorder and is clinically underweight should seek the guidance and/or help of a medical practitioner to reduce the risk of side effects of recovery such as refeeding syndrome.

Weight gain in eating disorder recovery is similar to someone who is looking to gain weight for muscle growth. You need to be taking in as much energy as your body is burning, plus more so, in order to actually gain weight.


There are also differences.

Beyond the physical discomfort of eating more food than the person is used to, there is a large psychological component. Most likely when you have an eating disorder you understand that you need to gain weight, but you fear the food, weight gain…or both. This makes it hard for someone to gain weight due to hunger signals, not impossible, but just very hard. To counteract that, it is essential to eat as many energy dense foods as possible.

Opinions differ as to whether someone recovering from an eating disorder should eat only foods such as burgers, pizzas, and candy with little to no vegetables–actually, many clinics follow this approach. Personally, as someone who has suffered from an eating disorder and went through recovery I do not agree with this approach. There are many vitamins, minerals, and nutrients and person will lack when they suffer from an eating disorder. It is essential that they replenish these deficiencies as soon as possible to reduce the chances of long term consequences. So eating nutrient dense foods is very important. This can be a very lengthy topic so I will not go into detail about it in this post but suffice to say that I just want to let you know where my thoughts lie. Of course, if you are currently in treatment you should listen to your health care provider, but know that there are different methods to recovery and it is not necessarily a one size fits all.

As we discussed with those looking to build muscle, if you eat poorly most of what you will “gain” will be fat. In the case of a person with an eating disorder, it is important that they do gain a considerable amount of fat. It is indeed necessary as their body is depleted of fat. It is also important that they make sure to limit any cardio and instead focus on exercises that would increase muscle (such as pilates or resistance training) instead of burning calories.


Weight Gain In Conclusion

It can be difficult to gain weight. In some cases even more so than to actually lose weight. Yet, despite this, it is still possible to gain weight in a healthy way. The person just needs to be dedicated to it and push. Just like in losing weight, gaining weight must also result in a lifestyle change. If you only change your diet for a short amount of time and leave your lifestyle the same way, you will only delay the inevitable—losing weight again. Therefore, you must change your lifestyle so that it fits in the bigger picture!

Probably the most important to gaining weight will be the food that you eat. As discussed before, it is possible to rely solely on healthy foods to gain weight

One rule of thumb, especially for someone recovering from an eating disorder, that I find particularly helpful making sure that ALL of the food you eat is the whole fat version while gaining weight and once you reached your desired weight you then allow yourself to eat the lower calorie alternatives. Another good idea is including healthy smoothies and drinks to your diet—I am not talking about sugar full fruit juices but high quality protein shakes and smoothies are a good addition to your diet.


Food Ideas/Swaps for Weight Gain

  • Nuts and Seeds as snacks instead of carrot/celery sticks
  • Dried Fruit instead of fresh
  • Cooked vegetables instead of raw
  • Higher Calorie fruits (bananas, mangos, coconut, avocado) instead of lower calorie
  • Protein Shakes and Smoothies instead of water and juices
  • Homemade Shakes with added nut butter and oats blended in
  • Oils for cooking/baking instead of plain
  • Nut Butters instead of jelly (or with it)
  • Bagels instead of bread
  • Full Fat Sour Cream, Milk, Yogurt and Cheeses versus low fat dairy products
  • For Athletes/Active Individuals: carbohydrate powder to add into shakes/smoothies or creatine and HMB for lean muscle mass gain
  • Your favorite foods! It’s okay to not have all “healthy foods” and incorporate some of your favorites like ice cream, chocolate, ect! If you have high needs, you won’t be able to gin weight with all “healthy food”.


Food Brand Alternatives for Weight Gain

  • Granola/Protein Bars
    • Clif Builder Bars
    • Gatorade Bars
    • GoMacro Bar
    • Perfect Bar
    • Pro Bar
  • Yogurt
    • Dannon Full Fat Greek Yogurt
    • Noosa Yogurt
    • Brown Cow Cream Top
    • Siggi Triple Cream
    • Kite Hill
  • Protein Shakes/Smoothies:
    • Naked Juice
    • Rockin’ Protein
    • Odwalla Shakes
    • Ensure Plus
    • Orgain Nutrition Shake
    • Chobani Yogurt Drink


Weight Gain Recipes


And if you want to work with a professional to help you in your weight gain journey to make sure you’re doing it in a healthy way, schedule a free strategy call here with Sarah Grace, sports dietitian and personal trainer.

Until next time,