How to gain weight

Gaining weight and sustaining it, can be tricky. Weight gain is shrouded in mystery, with those wanting to up the pounds often hearing friends or family exclaiming, “I wish I had that problem,” or looking at you with a perplexed expression, saying, “Just eat more!” Ah, if only it were that simple.

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We currently find ourselves amid a global pandemic, and whilst many emerging trends focus on ‘losing the lockdown 15’, there’s a growing community struggling with the opposite problem – how to gain weight.

Searches on Nutritionist Resource alone increased by over 200% in the last year for how to gain weight, and I can see why. When I search online for anything remotely related to weight gain, I’m immediately bombarded with how to lose weight gain fast-type content.

So, I sat down with nutritional therapist Esther Donoff, a specialist in weight management and cardiovascular health to understand not only how we can gain weight healthily, but why it has become a critical conversation.

Why has the pandemic contributed to weight loss?

Esther mentions that weight gain is particularly paramount at this time, and it’s not just about the food we eat that’s contributing to this, it’s down to a catalyst of pandemic-related factors; stress, time-restrictions and lack of knowledge leading our food choices ultimately come together to fuel unintentional weight loss.

Esther says that in this case, stress is a huge contributing factor. “There has been a lot of people struggling with stress due to different things, whether that’s finances, relationships and relationship breakdowns, bereavements, stress with children being home all the time – and stress can cause weight loss.”

Stress of the pandemic has exaggerated, even triggered food habits. In general, it can affect our appetite, eating habits and even digestive functioning, impairing memory, cognitive function and desires.

Stress can lead someone to miss meals or make poorer food choices. The vagus nerve, the body’s communication highway, is sensitive to stress and can impact our digestive organs and, when stress is coupled with poor food choices it can contribute to inflammation in the body, which activates the vagus nerve and alters our gut functionality. 

“With all the best will in the world, stress can cause loss of appetite and then the resulting weight loss. So people who are wanting to gain weight may think, well I’ll just eat loads of chocolates and I’ll gain weight. But if you want to be in the best health possible and support your immune system, you really want to think a little more cleverly about how you gain that weight,” explains Esther. 

So as we know stress is a driver in weight loss, learning how to minimise or manage your stress is key, but can we counteract this with such a thing as the weight gain diet? Let’s look at this in more detail.

The weight gain diet

Esther shares that if you are struggling to put on weight, instead of loading up on very general foods that we know have a high calorific count (such as sugary treats which are often ‘empty calories’), try to be a little more intuitive with the food you are eating. 

We want to make sure that every mouthful you’re having is really nutrient and energy-dense, so we talk about food being energy-dense as they amount to calories in a particular food.

“The sorts of foods you want to be looking at are the ones that are healthy and contain a caloric load but are also providing lots of nutrients”, says Esther, suggesting a balanced mix of the following:

  • Healthy fats – avocados, walnuts, nut butter, sesame oil.
  • Protein sources – dairy, edamame, eggs, poultry, oily fish.
  • Complex carbs – wholegrains, root vegetables, legumes.

 “Whatever you’re having, add a nice smattering of energy-dense foods like nuts or seeds. Just sprinkle it on, whether it’s a soup or salad, add a sprinkle of flaked almonds or sesame or poppy seeds to add really nutritious calories to the mix.

“Yes, it’s still important to eat those less energy-dense foods like vegetables because they contain a lot of nutrition, but you want to add a bit of olive oil or sesame oil, something to add a few more calories in there.” 

With weight gain, it does all depend on your goals. So, for example, if you were hoping to build muscle, a balanced diet that’s rich in high-protein, lean foods such as lentils, lean beef, egg whites and dry peas could be helpful.

Perhaps you have a medical condition such as an overactive thyroid which is often associated with weight loss. In this case, you want to be working with your GP and nutrition professional together to navigate personalised weight gain information.

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Lifestyle support for weight gain

As we know, it isn’t simply down to what we eat that can affect our weight. Esther suggests addressing both your level of activity and your reasons for exercise, such as pleasure, mental health, and thus your sleep and relaxation efforts, as part of a complete approach to weight gain.

“Exercise is healthy and it has its place, but don’t over-exercise because you don’t want to be burning up too much. I don’t think intense exercise is really that healthy for anybody, I think moderation is key in most things.”

She says good sleep hygiene is also key when it comes to managing stress and weight. “Look at your sleep. Make sure you practise good sleep hygiene, making sure the room is dark, the bed is comfortable, your screen is off and maybe in another room, you’ve got cotton bedsheets, etc. Wind down before bed, avoid watching horror films or getting into bed before an argument.”

Ensuring you get plenty of sleep is also very important for muscle growth as your body produces its own muscle-building hormone when you’re asleep.

Top tips to help you gain weight

  • add nutrient-dense foods to every meal
  • add a glug of olive/sesame oil to vegetables 
  • opt for variety in nuts and seeds
  • if whole/solid foods don’t work for you, change the consistency – make a pate or smoothie for example
  • try and step outside your comfort zone and sample a variety of foods
  • prioritise healthy sleep hygiene 
  • adjust your exercise regime to support weight gain

If you are struggling to gain weight and need some additional support, a nutrition professional can provide you with personalised dietary information and make lifestyle suggestions to support your goals. Find a nutritionist who’s right for you with our search tool.

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Written by Katie Hoare

Katie is a writer for Nutritionist Resource.

Written by Katie Hoare

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