How to gain weight healthily
Gaining weight, for some, can be tough. You might struggle to get your recommended daily calories due to illness, lack of appetite or mental health condition. Wellwishers often suggest that “just eating more” will surely do the trick, but it’s not that simple, particularly if you follow a certain diet, have allergies or are under medical investigation.
It can be easy to fall into a vicious cycle of the less we eat, the less we want to eat. Trauma, for example, can cause a surge of ‘fight or flight’ hormones which can tip the body into ‘catabolism’ – when it begins to break down the muscles, causing weakness, weight loss and that shocking gaunt look we sometimes see in the recently bereaved or unwell.
Healthy approaches to weight gain
Of course, everyone is different, and their reasons and requirements to gain weight can vary. But there are some general practices that you can apply when it comes to nourishing your body to gain weight healthily.
1. Make every mouthful count
When you’re struggling to put on or maintain weight, it’s not as simple as needing to eat more. For example, if you’re stressed, unwell or recovering from emotional or physical trauma, you may find that although your body needs more nourishment, you actually have less of an appetite than usual, so you need to ensure that every mouthful has the maximum nutritional value it can. Sip a smoothie or a nutritionally balanced drink between meals to give you the energy you need to recover.
2. Don’t fill up on fibre
Although fruits and vegetables are essential for our health, they’re also rich in fibre which can mean we feel full too quickly. If you’re feeling unwell and already have a small appetite, it can mean you stop eating before you’ve taken in all the energy and nutrients you need.
3. Keep a food diary
It can be easy to miss a meal without noticing, especially if you’re stressed, busy or have lost your appetite. Keeping a food diary can help you track how often you’re really eating (don’t forget to make a note of snacks), see how healthy your choices are, and spot the emotional triggers around your eating – saying you’ll eat after the kids are in bed, for example, then simply munching on some biscuits because you’re too tired to cook.
Keep your diary for at least two weeks, then with the information to hand, you can tweak your eating, so you feel stronger, fitter and more resilient.
4. Try the Mediterranean diet
I’m a fan of the Mediterranean diet as it offers a perfect balance of energy-giving complex carbohydrates, protein, healthy fats, and antioxidant-packed fruit and vegetables – not to mention cheese, which I love! By tweaking the levels of the more calorific foods (fats, dairy products), you can adjust your weight while still enjoying delicious and healthy foods.
Foods for healthy weight gain
What foods can you include in your diet to increase and maintain weight?
Protein-rich foods can be very valuable when you want to improve your body’s strength, immune system and stabilise energy levels and moods. Often when you’re fighting diseases such as cancer, your body has a tendency to break down your muscles and leave you feeling weak and vulnerable, so it’s a priority to increase your intake of protein-rich foods to help counteract the effects of the disease and treatments.
While the thought of tucking into large quantities of anything, let alone piles of meat, can leave you cold, easier alternatives are a simple chicken soup or a frittata to have in the fridge for when you don’t have the energy or inclination to cook from scratch.
You need protein to help give you strength and balance blood sugar to help you feel more resilient, so make the soup with a protein-rich stock, such as chicken, and stir in cream or shave some Parmesan on top to enrich it. You can keep portions small if you add calorie-rich ingredients such as olive, coconut or avocado oils, nut milks and dairy or non-dairy cream, such as coconut cream, or butter.
Complex carbohydrates including sweet potatoes, porridge oats and wholegrains provide valuable energy and nutrients. They are also processed by the body more slowly than their refined counterparts such as white bread and pasta, and the effect is enhanced if you eat them with some protein such as fish, eggs or nuts. It means they release their energy more slowly, so you feel satisfied and strong, even if you’re eating less than you usually would.
Fats provide a great source of calories, but can also make a dish taste better, which can be just what’s needed when you’re struggling with a jaded appetite. Add butter, cream, full-fat Greek-style yoghurt, olive or avocado oil to dishes. You can also add some finely grated hard cheese to puréed and mashed vegetables. Coconut cream or oil, or a nut butter are also delicious if you want to use non-dairy fat
Sometimes we need to tempt our appetite and our taste buds, so don’t feel guilty.
Don’t feel guilty about making food that’s pretty and appealing. You could keep jars of bright and colourful poached berries or stewed apples in the fridge, which need only a spoonful of thick and creamy Greek yoghurt to turn them into a gorgeous and healthy breakfast or snack.
Chocolate can have an appetite-stimulating effect. It’s probably down to the theobromine inside the chocolate which can act as a muscle relaxant, and ease the ‘frog in the throat’ feeling which can take away appetite.
You may like to try my chocolate trick, which is simply taking a few squares of a high cocoa bean chocolate, either nibbling on it whole or melting it in a small amount of milk and serving as an espresso cup-sized portion of hot or cool chocolate drink. It can really help to ease swallowing and pique the interest of a lacking appetite.
If you can’t face the typical three meals a day, don’t worry about it. But rather than grazing on high-fat crisps and biscuits which can upset your gut and your blood sugar and leave you feeling exhausted, have some healthier options to turn to. A cracker with some cheese, sliced egg or hummus or a couple of sticky Medjool dates will give you a healthy boost.
Instead of reaching for the biscuits, why not try a cup of warming, vegetable soup? It’s full of easy-to-digest fibre and high in probiotics, both of which are great for the friendly bacteria in your gut. And if you opt for a veggie version, you’ll get lots of antioxidants such as beta carotene, riboflavin and resveratrol, too – you could add a swirl of cream or yoghurt to enrich it with more calories. I guarantee it will be more satisfying than a cup of tea!
Spotlight on veganism and weight gain
Plant-based protein is an essential element of a vegan diet, but it can be tempting to fill up on carbohydrates (especially in the winter months when we want their warmth and comfort), neglecting our protein needs in the process. We need protein if we’re to build muscle and put on weight in a healthy way.
Unlike animal protein, no single plant protein contains the eight amino acids that can’t be made by our body and must, therefore, come from our food. But by eating a wide range of non-meat protein, there’s no reason not to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet and still put on weight if we need to. Hummus, beans (even baked beans), lentil dishes such as dahl, miso, tofu and nut butters are all go-to sources.
If you are struggling to gain and maintain weight, seeking help from a registered nutrition professional can provide you with knowledge and support to reach healthy weight goals. Use our advanced search tool to find a practitioner in your area.
Jane is both a dietitian and Cordon Bleu chef and has authored nine best-selling books. She is the founder of Nourish and was the first person in the UK to open a private dietetic clinic. Find out more about Jane via her website Nourish.com.
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