It is a common myth that gaining weight is simple, but this could not be more false. For some people, gaining weight and putting on muscle can be just as difficult as losing weight. Whatever your health goals are, whether you are underweight and trying to reach a healthful weight or whether you are simply looking to increase muscle mass, the foods for optimal weight gain remain the same. In this article, we’ll dive into the science behind the best foods for weight gain and how you can incorporate them into a balanced diet.
When it comes to weight gain, it’s important to understand the underlying science. It’s a common misconception that when people are trying to put on weight, they should simply eat foods that are high in fat and sugar that offer little nutritional value. And - although gaining weight requires consuming more calories than you burn, not all calories are created equal. Foods high in sugar and saturated fats can certainly help increase weight, but they can also lead to health issues down the road when eaten in excess. Those foods are often referred to as “empty calories” because even though they are high in calories, they offer little to no nutritional benefit.
Alternatively, the key to healthy weight gain is to incorporate nutrient-dense foods. That means high-calorie foods that are loaded with healthy fats, whole grains, fiber, and a host of vitamins and minerals. These types of foods are what the body needs to successfully build muscle and increase lean gains.
If you’re looking to gain weight in a healthy and sustainable way, it’s important to choose foods that are both calorie-dense and nutrient-rich. For instance, nut butters are a tasty and nutritious way to add healthy dietary calories. These creamy spreads are packed with plant-based protein and healthy fats, making them a wonderful addition to a balanced diet. When you incorporate foods that are both high in calories and rich in nutrients, you can increase energy levels and improve stamina in your workouts.
Macronutrients - we hear this term all the time when it comes to strength training, but what exactly does this mean? Well, macronutrients, also referred to as “macros” are the three main components of our diet, which include protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Each of these macros plays a unique role in the body and supports our health goals in different ways. For example, protein is critical for the building and repairing of muscle tissue, while carbohydrates provide our bodies with the fuel source it needs to power through workouts and daily activities. Additionally, healthful fats, such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, are another important energy source for our bodies and help us to absorb essential vitamins and minerals.
The recommended macronutrient distribution range. "The recommended macronutrient distribution range") for protein is 10-35%, 45-65% from carbohydrates, and 20-35% from fat. However, instead of focusing so much on these ranges, it’s more important to pay attention to the quality and nutritional value of the foods you choose.
In addition to macronutrient content, vitamins and minerals play an important role towards ensuring a well-rounded nutritional profile. In particular, certain nutrients have been shown to support muscle growth, which can then result in weight gain. For example, creatine is a popular supplement used by fitness enthusiasts due to its ability to enhance muscle strength and size. When creatine is combined with a consistent weight-training regimen, an increase in lean gains may occur.
Protein powder is also a great supplement to consider, as it provides a convenient way to increase your intake of essential amino acids. These amino acids are referred to as the building blocks for our bodies, and without them, we may not be able to put on muscle as efficiently as we might like. Incorporating a high-quality protein powder into your diet can ensure that you are getting the nutrients you need to build and repair muscle tissue.
Lastly, the fiber content of our foods is something you’ll want to pay close attention to. Fiber is completely indigestible by the body, which means it provides zero calories. But providing zero calories does not mean it has no use. In fact, fiber is one of the most important nutrients that our bodies need! Since it is indigestible, it passes through the digestive system completely intact, moving stool and collecting harmful toxins to be excreted from the body.
Consuming high-fiber foods allows you to feel fuller longer and reduce cravings. However, it is important that when you increase your fiber intake, you are also maintaining sufficient hydration, as fluids are necessary for fiber to move throughout the digestive tract properly and maintain regular bowel movements.
Now that we’ve discussed the science behind healthy weight gain, let’s discover some of the best foods to help you reach your weight gain goals.
Lean proteins are necessary for our bodies to be able to put on muscle and repair damaged tissues. A great source of lean protein is red meat. While red meat has gotten a bit of a bad reputation in recent years, it is actually packed with essential nutrients like iron, zinc, and vitamin B12. Additionally, red meat is one of the most bioavailable forms of protein, meaning that the body is able to digest and absorb it better than other types of protein. Of course, selecting leaner cuts of red meat, such as flank steak and brisket, is preferred.
Incorporating dairy into the diet is a great way to obtain a plethora of calories that are packed with protein, healthy fats, and vitamins and minerals. Dairy products, such as milk and cheese, will typically contain vitamin D and calcium, which are both essential for building strong bones and promoting bone density.
There are plenty of lactose-free options as well if you are lactose-intolerant or avoiding dairy. There are lactose-free milks that contain all the same nutrients as regular milk, just with the lactose content removed. Additionally, dairy-free milk and dairy-free cheese and yogurts are available as well. And for an added health boost, you can consider incorporating probiotic-rich dairy products, such as Greek yogurt and kefir into your diet. These foods can help support a healthy gut microbiome, while simultaneously providing essential vitamins and minerals.
Nuts and nut butters are another great way to incorporate healthy fats and protein into the diet. The serving sizes are small and they contain a high-calorie content, making them an efficient way to increase your overall calorie intake. For instance, just 2 tablespoons of peanut butter contain 188 calories, 8 grams of protein, and 16 grams of fat. Of course, anyone with peanut or tree nut allergies should avoid these products.
Whole grains such as quinoa, brown rice, wheat bread, and whole-wheat pasta are delicious complex carbohydrates that contain a wide variety of nutrients. Alternatively to refined carbohydrates, such as white bread or rice, whole grains contain protein, B vitamins, and metabolic-boosting fiber.
Another food that is high in calories and loaded with heart-healthy fats is avocado. It’s easy to contribute additional calories to your daily diet with this nutrient-dense fruit. Avocado is also provides a source of fiber, potassium, magnesium, and vitamins C, K, and A, which are important for supporting immune function. Just one-half of a medium avocado contains about 160 calories, 15 grams of protein, and a whopping 7 grams of fiber!
Olive oil is one of the highest-calorie foods by volume. This also goes for other plant-based oils, such as avocado oil, canola oil, and vegetable oil, just to name a few. In one tablespoon of olive oil, there are 120 calories and about 14 grams of mono and polyunsaturated fats. By cooking your foods with olive oil, you can easily increase your daily caloric intake while also boosting your consumption of healthy fats.
Fatty fish, such as salmon and mackerel are considered nutrient-dense proteins. Fatty fish have an impressive nutrient composition, as they contain omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins D and B12, and minerals such as selenium and potassium. Just one 3-ounce serving of mackerel contains 115 calories, 22 grams of protein, and 3 grams of fat. Additionally, salmon has been linked to numerous health benefits, from supporting bone health and heart health to improving cognitive function.
Dried fruits are a tasty snack that can easily be incorporated into your diet. They are rich in natural sugars and fiber, as well as a variety of essential vitamins and minerals. For example, this study found that dried fruits such as dates and raisins are rich in polyphenols - a type of antioxidant that can manage oxidative stress and promote gut health. Adding dried fruits to a homemade trail mix or throwing them into your morning bowl of oatmeal are easy and convenient ways to increase calories and other important nutrients.
Potatoes and other starchy vegetables, such as butternut squash, are an effortless way to pack extra calories into your meals. As a great source of carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals, potatoes are an energy-rich food that can fuel your body and support weight gain. In particular, they are high in potassium, B vitamins, and vitamin C, which can promote healthy energy metabolism and immune function. Another interesting tidbit is that potatoes contain resistant starches, which are a type of fiber that can act as a prebiotic to feed your gut bacteria.
Eggs are one of the most versatile and nutritionally packed foods on this planet. Eggs are a rich source of protein, and other essential nutrients, such as vitamin D, vitamin B12, selenium, and choline.
While diet is an exceptionally important component of any weight gain endeavor, exercise is still needed for gaining weight and building muscle mass. In particular, resistance training, such as weight lifting or bodyweight exercises, is critical, as it helps to synthesize new muscle and increase metabolic rate. Moreover, by increasing your metabolic rate, exercise can help to improve your appetite, making it easier to consume the necessary calories and nutrients that your body needs to support weight gain.
Gaining weight in a healthful way involves consuming nutrient-dense foods that are high in calories and provide a balanced macronutrient profile. Incorporating foods such as lean proteins, whole grains, starchy vegetables, healthy fats, and dairy products can provide a variety of vitamins, minerals, and other essential nutrients that are needed for supporting muscle growth and weight gain.
Additionally, exercise, particularly resistance training, is a required component of a healthy weight gain journey, as it can help to stimulate muscle growth and increase overall caloric needs. By focusing on these key components and making gradual, sustainable changes to your diet and lifestyle, you can achieve your weight gain goals while also promoting overall well-being!