Healthy Weight Gain: Nutrient-Dense Foods and Diet Tips

  • Darius Obeng EssahPharm D, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Techology
  • Ellen Rogers MSc in Advanced Biological Sciences, University of Exeter

Introduction

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 462 million adults worldwide were classified as underweight in 2014. Trying to gain weight quickly can be challenging, as there are much fewer resources out there compared to those for losing weight. As such, it’s often a struggle for many people to gain healthy weight, especially if they have a slim build.

Being underweight could be a sign of underlying issues. Not eating enough calories for prolonged periods of time can lead to being underweight, which can cause various health problems. Conversely, eating too many calories can lead to being overweight, which is also not ideal.

If you’re looking to gain weight quickly, it's important to talk to a doctor first. Sometimes, struggling to gain weight or losing weight without reason could indicate a serious health concern issue that requires medical attention. Even in these cases, it’s best to gain weight gradually for long-term success. 

How to gain weight 

The key to gaining weight healthily is to consume more calories than you burn throughout the day - and ideally aiming to consume 300-500 calories beyond what your body needs. You can do this by increasing the size of your meals or adding more meals throughout the day.

Increasing your intake of fats and protein is crucial when trying to gain weight.1 However, you should avoid consuming excessive amounts of unhealthy fats and junk food, as they can lead to weight gain primarily in the abdominal area and contribute to long-term health issues like diabetes, obesity, and heart problems.2

Incorporating regular, moderate exercise into your routine can also help build muscle mass. However, you should avoid overly intense exercise that could lead to burning more calories than you consume.

Nutrient-rich foods for weight gain

Certain kinds of food can help you gain weight rapidly and safely. These include foods packed with complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, protein and other nutrient-dense foods to support overall health while gaining weight.

If you're looking to gain weight, here are a few options for healthy foods to include in your diet.

Proteins

Red meats

Red meats, such as beef and pork, are excellent for muscle development. 2022 studies indicate that consuming red meat, in conjunction with strength exercises, not only helps build muscle but also prevents its loss with ageing.

For example, a serving size of 3 ounces (85 grams) of steak contains 228 calories, 24 grams of protein, and about 2.5 grams of leucine. Leucine is an essential amino acid required for initiating muscle protein synthesis and new muscle tissue growth. Additionally, red meats offer natural creatine which is critical for enhancing muscle mass, strength, and health.

However, it is important to consume red meat in moderation due to potential links to colorectal cancer identified in recent studies. Experts recommend limiting red meat consumption to no more than 50 grams daily.

Eggs

Eggs are packed with nutrients beneficial for muscle building and overall health. A single large egg provides roughly 72-74 calories and is a good source of proteins and fats.

Health guidelines suggest that individuals who are not allergic can consume up to three eggs per day due to their various health benefits. Eggs are also versatile; they can be boiled, fried or scrambled.

Beyond being a standalone dish, eggs can be mixed into salads or casseroles, tucked into sandwiches or even baked into muffins. They also serve as substitutes in certain breads or desserts like custard and crème brûlée when used sparingly. For a hearty option, consider an omelet loaded with your choice of meats, vegetables, cheese, topped off with sour cream and avocado slices for extra flavor.

Carbohydrates 

Rice and whole grains

Rice serves as a convenient and affordable source of carbohydrates, making it suitable for a weight gain meal plan. Just one cup (158 g) of cooked white rice provides 204 calories and 44 g of carbs, with minimal fat content.

100 g of uncooked brown rice contains 368 calories and approximately 76.7 grams (g) of carbohydrates. This variety of rice is also higher in protein compared to certain other types. In addition, a 100-g portion of uncooked brown rice provides 368 calories.

Although both white and brown rice contain some protein, pairing them with other foods like meat or beans can significantly increase the protein and calories within a meal. This makes them versatile options for enhancing the nutritional value of meals.

Rice dishes can also stand alone as complete meals. For instance, try wild rice and chicken kale for a balanced lunch, providing 400 calories per serving.

Cereals

Ready-to-eat cereals are beneficial for weight gain and overall health. They are excellent sources of carbohydrates, calories, and essential nutrients, making them a valuable addition to a weight-gain eating plan. Indeed, a 2016 review of 64 studies revealed that individuals who consume ready-to-eat cereals tend to have higher intakes of essential nutrients, reduced risk of high blood pressure, and positive effects on type 2 diabetes.7

For instance, oatmeal cooked with whole milk is a great carbohydrate source to include in your diet. A single serving of cooked oatmeal (237 mL, or 1/2 cup of dry oats) provides about 150 calories, and additional calories come from any whole milk or toppings added. To further boost your caloric intake, consider topping your oatmeal or yoghurt with nuts, nut butter, dried fruit, chia seeds, flaxseed, fresh berries, homemade granola, maple syrup, or honey.

When selecting cereals, opt for options like oats, granola, multigrain, bran, or muesli. If possible, choose varieties with higher fibre content, as fibre offers numerous health benefits.

Dark chocolate

Thanks to its high-fat content, dark chocolate provides a dense source of calories, allowing you to obtain calories without consuming large quantities. Each 100 g (3.5 oz) bar containing 60–75% cacao solids offers around 600 calories and is rich in micronutrients such as fibre, magnesium, and antioxidants.8

Dark chocolate contains antioxidants that offer numerous health benefits. Opt for high-quality dark chocolate with at least 70% cacao for maximum health benefits. A recent study in 2023 discovered that individuals with kidney disease who consumed 40 g of 70% dark chocolate three times per week over two months experienced less inflammation than those who didn’t.9

There are various ways to enjoy dark chocolate beyond eating it as is. You can top your cereal with it, add it to trail mix or granola, pair it with fruit, dissolve it in hot milk, or dip it into nut butter. Additionally, you can incorporate dark chocolate into desserts like energy bites, chocolate truffles, or chocolate peanut butter avocado pudding.

Healthy fats and oils

Avocados

Avocados are packed with healthy fats, making them a nutritious addition to any diet. Unlike many other fruits, avocados are quite calorie-dense. A single large avocado contains approximately 345 calories, 30 g of fat, and 17 g of fibre.10 Additionally, avocados are rich in vitamins, minerals, and various beneficial plant compounds.

Incorporating avocados into dishes like omelettes or salads can add both flavour and nutritional value. Avocados can be enjoyed grilled, baked, added to soups, wraps, fries, and sushi, used as a topping or mayonnaise substitute or pickled for added variety.10

Oils

Fats and oils are among the most calorie-rich foods available. Just adding a single tablespoon of olive oil, whether in sauces, salads or while cooking, can add around 120 calories to your meal. Some important oils to consider include extra virgin olive oil, sunflower oil, walnut oil, avocado oil, and coconut oil. 

One trendy way to consume fats is by incorporating them into your morning routine, such as with butter coffee or olive oil coffee. For example, you could blend brewed coffee with coconut oil and unsalted butter until it resembles a frothy latte.

Dairy products 

Cheese

Cheese has been a dietary staple for centuries, offering calories and fats essential for energy. Just 1 oz of cheddar cheese (28 g) contains 110 calories and 7 g of protein.

Because of its delicious taste, cheese can be easily incorporated into various dishes to increase calorie intake. With countless varieties available, you can explore different types to find ones that suit your preferences.

However, it's important to consume cheese in moderation, as many varieties contain cholesterol and saturated fat. However, when enjoyed in appropriate portions, cheese can contribute to a balanced diet.

Consider trying a mac and cheese recipe featuring 1 cup (125 g) of shredded cheddar cheese, providing 314 calories per serving, for a delicious and satisfying meal.

Yoghurt

Greek yoghurt made with whole milk is a convenient and nutritious snack option. It has a thick consistency and provides a balanced mix of protein, carbs, and fat.

A 1/2 cup serving of plain, whole-milk Greek yoghurt contains about 165 calories and 15 grams of protein, making it a filling snack choice. You can customize your yoghurt snacks by adding various toppings and combos.

Summary

Gaining weight healthily involves eating nutrient-rich foods and gradually increasing your calorie intake. Including protein-rich foods like meats, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy, along with carbs from rice, grains, and cereals, helps support weight gain. 

Adding healthy fats from sources like avocados, dark chocolate, cheese, and oils is important too. Moderation and quality are key. With a balanced diet and regular exercise, individuals can achieve healthy weight gain safely and effectively.

References

  1. Management I of M (US) S on MW. Factors that influence body weight. In: Weight Management: State of the Science and Opportunities for Military Programs [Internet]. National Academies Press (US); 2004 [cited 2024 Feb 23]. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK221834/
  2. Fuhrman J. The hidden dangers of fast and processed food. Am. J. Lifestyle Med. [Internet]. 2018 Apr 3 [cited 2024 May 1];12(5):375–81. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6146358/
  3. Giromini C, Givens DI. Benefits and risks associated with meat consumption during key life processes and in relation to the risk of chronic diseases. Foods [Internet]. 2022 Jul 12 [cited 2024 Feb 23];11(14):2063. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9318327/
  4. Zaromskyte G, Prokopidis K, Ioannidis T, Tipton KD, Witard OC. Evaluating the leucine trigger hypothesis to explain the post-prandial regulation of muscle protein synthesis in young and older adults: a systematic review. Front. Nutr. [Internet]. 2021 Jul 8 [cited 2024 Feb 23];8:685165. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8295465/
  5. Wu G. Important roles of dietary taurine, creatine, carnosine, anserine, and, 4-hydroxyproline in human nutrition and health. Amino Acids [Internet]. 2020 [cited 2024 Feb 23];52(3):329–60. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7088015/
  6. Puglisi MJ, Fernandez ML. The health benefits of egg protein. Nutrients [Internet]. 2022 Jul 15 [cited 2024 Feb 23];14(14):2904. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9316657/
  7. Priebe MG, McMonagle JR. Effects of ready-to-eat-cereals on key nutritional and health outcomes: a systematic review. PLoS One [Internet]. 2016 Oct 17 [cited 2024 Feb 23];11(10):e0164931. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5066953/
  8. Samanta S, Sarkar T, Chakraborty R, Rebezov M, Shariati MA, Thiruvengadam M, Rengasamy KRR. Dark chocolate: An overview of its biological activity, processing, and fortification approaches. Curr Res Food Sci [Internet]. 2022 Oct 15;5:1916-1943. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9589144/
  9. Ribeiro M, Fanton S, Paiva BR, Baptista BG, Alvarenga L, Ribeiro-Alves M, et al. Dark chocolate (70% cocoa) attenuates the inflammatory marker TNF-α in patients on hemodialysis. Clin. Nutr. ESPEN [Internet]. 2023 Feb;53:189–95. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/36657913/
  10. Dreher ML, Davenport AJ. Hass avocado composition and potential health effects. Crit. Rev. Food. Sci. Nutr.[Internet]. 2013 May [cited 2024 Feb 23];53(7):738–50. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3664913/
This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Anita C Mgbakor

BSc in Health Care Management

She is a freelance Health Writer who has written for several brands and has direct patient engagement experience. Currently, she is pursuing a nursing degree.

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