How to Gain Weight Healthily

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Although not common among the general population, there are times when athletes need to gain weight. Find out how to do it the right way. How to Gain Weight Healthily

At one point during my time as a collegiate runner, I was in a position in which many adults would be happy to find themselves…I needed to gain at least 10 pounds. Overtraining and not fueling myself properly put me in the precarious conditions of amenorrhea, anemia and muscle wasting. Because I wanted to continue to train and compete at a relatively high level, I needed to prioritize my health and rework my eating plan to get back on track.

How Did I Get Here?

Losing weight wasn’t something I set out to do. A full class load, a campus job, a social life and training for and competing at the national level kept me very busy. Add to all this the fact that I had opted out of a campus meal plan, and it is not surprising that it was a recipe for disaster. After a full day of classes, work, and practice and before an evening of studying, the last thing I wanted to do was cook dinner. (I use the term “cook” loosely here.)

Even after I started feeling bad…insomnia, fatigue, dizziness on standing, labored breathing and achy arms and legs when running, I still didn’t make the connection between my health and my diet. Only after a doctor’s visit and the results of blood work did it become apparent that I wasn’t eating enough to fuel my current level of physical activity.

My previous situation isn’t limited to college/professional female runners although the female athlete triad—amenorrhea, disordered eating, osteoporosis—are more prevalent among them. And anyone—men or women—with a BMI of less than 18.5 is considered underweight.

Put Down that Bag of Chips!

Most people would love to hear the words, “You need to gain 10 pounds.” Cue the fast food drive-thru and bring on the junk food! Of course, you could easily gain pounds by eating fast food and junk food but if you want to maintain a high level of fitness that is not the way to do it.

Most fast food and highly processed junk food have no nutritional value whatsoever and although they might help you gain weight, you won’t be fueling your body smartly enough for the active lifestyle you want to lead.

Getting Back on Track

If you’ve decided you need to gain weight and you aren’t feeling poorly, you may be able to avoid a trip to the doctor. But a session with a registered dietician—even some grocery stores employ them on site—might be helpful.

The scientific way to go about gaining weight is to first figure out your resting metabolic rate (RMR), which is what your body expands on its own just to maintain daily function. Then, you would need to figure out how much additional energy you expend per day.

For example, if your RMR is 2,000 calories and your daily energy expenditure is 1,000 calories per day and you eat 3,000 calories per day, you would maintain your current weight. To gain one pound per week, you need to eat an additional 500 calories daily, so in this case, 3,500 calories per day.

A registered dietician will help you calculate your figures accurately and let you know how many more calories you will need to eat—and what you should eat—on a daily basis.


Some General Guidelines

If you don’t have access to a dietician or some type of nutrition professional, you can certainly make some beneficial changes to your diet and eating habits on your own.

The Mayo Clinic offers some general guidelines for gaining weight on their website, Among them are the following.

  • Eat foods rich in nutrients. Rather than empty calories from highly processed and junk foods, choose whole-grain cereals, bread, and pasta; plenty of fruits and vegetables; calcium-rich dairy products; lean proteins like eggs, chicken and fish; and nuts and seeds, which are high in healthy fats.
  • Eat more often. Those who are underweight might feel full more quickly. Instead of eating three large meals per day, eat five to six smaller meals.
  • Steer clear of junk calories and try to make every bite counts. Choose wisely when snacking—opt for things like nuts, cheese, dried fruit, avocados and peanut butter. Instead of that before-bedtime bowl of ice cream, select nutrient-dense and protein-packed options like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole grain bread or a wrap with sliced veggies and lean meat and/or cheese.
  • Take into account what you drink and when. Some find that drinking anything before a meal suppresses their appetite. Instead, choose a high-calorie beverage along with a meal or snack or even wait to drink until after you’ve eaten. In addition, supplement your diet with nutrient-dense smoothies or healthy shakes rather than sodas or fruit juices, which are high in sugar and offer little nutritional value. Smoothies and shakes made with milk, fruit and plain yogurt are healthy options.
  • Add things to the dishes you cook to make them more nutrient-dense and higher in calories. Add shredded cheese to casseroles and egg dishes like scrambled eggs and quiches. Add whole-grain pasta like orzo or ditalini to soups or stews. Add dried fruit and/or nuts to hot cereals like oatmeal.
  • Don’t totally deprive yourself. You can add an occasional treat but be mindful of excess sugar and fat. Although a piece of cake, a slice of pie or a bowl of ice cream is fine every now and then, certain granola bars, yogurt and healthy muffins and cookies made with whole-wheat flour, oats, yogurt, dried fruit and/or nuts are healthier choices.

Just Say No to No-Fat

When you are trying to gain weight, it is not the time to opt for a low-fat or fat-free fare. Switch to whole-fat milk, cheese, yogurt, cottage cheese and ice cream. Switch out “lite” or “low-cal” versions of products such as salad dressings, sauces, and bread to their higher calorie counterparts. Look for dry cereals that are higher in calories; some have as much as 200 calories per cup.

When choosing fruits and vegetables, pick up ones that are more nutrient-dense and higher in starch—potatoes, corn, mangoes, and avocados, for example. You don’t have to stop eating other fruits and vegetables of course, but simply make the starchier ones a regular part of your diet.

There also are things that you wouldn’t eat on their own but that can add a significant amount of calories and nutrients to your diet. Protein powder can be swirled into smoothies and shakes. Wheat germ and flax meal can be sprinkled onto hot cereals or added to casseroles or baked goods.

Be Patient

Gaining weight is a slow process and won’t happen over the course of a couple days. Striving to gain a pound a week is reasonable but keep in mind that there might be setbacks along the way. If your weight loss was due to illness or injury, gaining weight might take even longer as your body focuses its energy first on the healing process. It is always a good idea to consult with your doctor about any unexplained weight loss. Your doctor and/or a registered dietitian can give you dietary guidelines more specifically tailored to your needs.


  1. William J. Kraemer, Steven J. Fleck, Michael R. Deschenes, Exercise Physiology, textbook
  2. Katherine Zeratsky, RD, LD, What's a good way to gain weight if you're underweight?, website
  3. Sonya Collins, Healthy Ways to Gain Weight, website
  4. Rachel Nall, What are the risks of being underweight?, website