It's easy to think you 'flip the rules' for weight loss to gain weight. So instead of avoiding calorie-dense foods, you actively choose them! However, it's not quite that straightforward.
It's important to avoid the temptation to head straight for indulgent foods we all know are high in calories – such as takeaways, fried food and chocolate. Although these are fine in moderation, and will most likely contribute to weight gain if they lead to a calorie surplus, they have less nutritional benefit than other healthier choices. They are often high in saturated fat, salt and sugar, and an excess intake of these nutrients can lead to an increased risk of things like type 2 diabetes and elevated blood cholesterol – regardless of whether you're a healthy weight or not.
You should choose both calorie-dense AND nutritious foods – this is the winning combo for healthy weight gain!
The golden rules to follow are:
Toppings are a great way to easily add extra calories to a dish or snack without realising you have!
Start with a healthy and nutritious base, such as porridge, then sprinkle on a handful of chopped nuts and seeds. Or have a fresh mixed salad or dish of pasta, then pour over an extra glug of olive oil.
These options will add extra flavour, plus calories, and are rich sources of good fats, essential for heart health and they help lower cholesterol. Nuts and seeds are also rich in vitamin E, an antioxidant that helps protect our cells from oxidative damage and maintains healthy skin and eyes.
Tip! For more nutritious toppings, try nuts, seeds, freshly dried or stewed fruit, sliced egg and plain Greek yogurt.
Get creative! Forget the spread – try avocado, houmous and no-added-sugar peanut butter (or any other nut butter you fancy – there are lots on the market!) instead. These are great toppings for toast or as an addition to a sandwich to add both extra moisture and nutrient-rich energy. Avocados, houmous and nut butter, are creamy to taste, high in calories, low in sugar and a rich source of heart-healthy monounsaturated fat. Opting for an avocado will boost your 5-a-day intake too!
I mentioned getting three portions of dairy food per day (or calcium-fortified dairy alternatives) to get the basics of your diet right. This is to reiterate the point – if milk is a part of your usual diet (or dairy alternatives such as soy, rice, nut and oat milk), try swapping to whole, full-fat varieties until you have reached your goal weight. As mentioned, just keep an eye on your total saturated fat intake as these full-fat versions are much higher in saturated fat.
By this, I mean think carefully about the combos of food you are eating and max the nutrients in one meal sitting!
Breakfast examples: Have a few slices of wholegrain toast, spread with nut butter and top with banana slices. Or top your morning porridge with a dollop of Greek yogurt and a sprinkling of dried cranberries.
Drinks are great for getting in some extra calories. Smoothies are a good choice you can make in advance, plus you can add healthy extras such as wheat germ, iron-rich leafy greens, nut butter, protein powders and seeds. Experiment with ingredients to find your favourite combo. For more inspiration check out our blog on how to build a great smoothie.
Try to pick foods that pack in the nutrients. Good choices are lean meats, poultry, eggs, nuts, pulses, oily fish, olive oil, avocado, nuts, oats and full-fat dairy foods, e.g. milk, yogurt, cheese.
Ideally, every 2-4 hours to avoid a drop in energy. Aim for 3-4 small meals and at least two snacks per day.
Our bodies need a continuous energy supply to fuel daily activities, from our basic bodily functions to supporting physical activity.
Start by adding in extra snacks. Then increase the total amount of food you eat over the day by upping your meals' portion size.
When trying to gain weight, you want foods that pack in many calories and nutrients for a small serving, so you don't have to eat vast quantities to meet your calorie target. For example, dried fruit – a handful of grapes turns into a tiny portion of raisins but equates to the same calories.
With this in mind, try making homemade 'energy balls'. Mix rolled oats and chopped dried fruit and nuts with a nut butter of your choice, shape into balls and wrap in baking parchment. These are convenient, nutritious snacks to graze on during the day.
Aim to drink 6-8 glasses of water a day as recommended, but don't drink immediately before eating to avoid feeling full before your meal.
Don't underestimate the benefits of exercise. It may seem counterproductive to burn calories when trying to gain weight, but I can reassure you certain types of exercise can be the perfect accompaniment to your healthy eating regime.
Rather than focusing on aerobic exercise that burns many calories, incorporate some strength training into your routine to help build muscle and keep you looking toned as you gain weight. Squats, lunges, wall press-ups, and calf raises are all great examples of exercises that use your body weight and can be easily performed at home and help build up lean muscle over time. YouTube is a great place to look for inspiration.
Exercise is essential if you're looking to gain muscle mass rather than simply gain weight. High-protein foods such as meat, fish, dairy products, eggs, pulses, protein bars or protein shakes should be included as a post-training snack to ensure maximum recovery.
Be realistic. Aim for a steady weight gain rate to give your body time to adjust to your changing diet. It's healthy to expect a weight gain of 1-2 lbs per week when energy intake levels are increased by around 500 calories a day, but an increase of between 300-500 calories per day is a great place to start. Some weeks you may gain more, others less – weight gain isn't linear – but the important thing is that it is going in the right direction!
Check in with how you are feeling. Although gaining weight may be a positive step forward for you, the process itself can be mentally challenging. It can be difficult to get out of the habit of under-eating, especially if you don't really enjoy food or it has become an ingrained behaviour. Our weight and body size, like other physical characteristics, is very much a part of our identity, and these conflicting feelings are entirely valid and normal as you embark on your journey to gain weight. Allowing yourself to break down barriers can be unnerving but greatly rewarding in the long term!
Things to consider if weight gain feels difficult:
Links for further reading:
Nutritionist Sophie Edgington (ANutr), BSc Nutrition is passionate about practising evidence-based nutrition and debunking the multitude of inaccurate myths that so readily surround food and health information. Her goal is to ensure we are all able to make informed and responsible decisions regarding our health.