Top 10 Foods to Gain Muscle Mass

What if I told you that you could retain or even gain more muscle mass and strength with less training? The secret lies in your nutrition.

As a personal trainer, most of my clients exhibit similar behavior: they train hard, but they don’t give a damn about nutrition. So the time and effort they spend on training is wasted. Why do they sabotage their own success? Because they think nutrition is complicated and want to avoid the topic.

But ignoring nutrition isn’t an option. Knowing how nutrition works will help you utilize it for your fitness and strength gains. This works for anyone and everyone, for general fitness maintenance or muscle mass gain.

To get you started, here is my list of the top ten foods to help you gain more muscle mass and strength.

If you’re training your brains out and eating mindlessly, you’re holding yourself back.

1. Lean Beef

This should be a staple of your diet if you want to gain muscle mass. Lean beef is loaded with all sorts of things conducive to muscle growth, including iron, zinc, and B-vitamins. More importantly, it provides your body with high-quality protein (not all proteins are equal), and a high level of amino acid that works with insulin to promote muscle growth.

For those who are trying to lose weight, this should come as great news – a 3oz serving of lean beef provides roughly the same amount of protein as 1.5 cups of beans but at half the calories.

How about these recipes to help you make the most of your nutrition plans:

  • Fast Fuel: Skillet Beef And Vegetables
  • Transform Takeout: Homemade Beef And Broccoli For Athletes

2. Skinless Chicken

Like beef, chicken is an excellent source of high-quality protein, which is important for muscle maintenance and repair, bone health, and weight maintenance. And of course, there are so many ways you can cook and prepare chicken. Go down to the store and you can easily find chicken meat cut into single serving sizes that can be seasoned and quickly cooked.

3. Cottage Cheese

Not many people know this, but cottage cheese is almost entirely pure casein protein. Casein is a slow-digesting protein, which means it is perfect for muscle maintenance. This is useful especially for people who have no choice but to go long periods without eating. Cottage cheese is also an excellent source of vitamin B12, calcium, and other important nutrients.

4. Eggs

Eggs contain high-quality protein, nine essential amino acids, choline, the right kind of fat, and vitamin D. They provide the most value for your money. And eggs are not harmful to your health, as numerous studies have already shown.

What was “bad” is good again:

  • The Great Egg Debate: 4 Reasons You Need To Stop Eating Eggs
  • The Great Egg Debate: Why You Should Eat Eggs, Why You Shouldn’t Not Eat Eggs

5. Whey Protein

There is a reason why whey protein supplements are the most popular supplement in the fitness industry: they provide a fast and convenient source of protein at an affordable price. Bodybuilders normally use them when they wake up, right after their workout, and mixed with some of their meals.

For the rest of us, a scoop in our shakers right after our workouts can be very effective for muscle mass gains. It’s important that you still get high-quality protein from whole foods, and use whey protein as a boost.

6. Tuna and Other Fish

Fish are high in protein, low in fat, and rich in omega-3 fatty acids. The omega-3s are essential because they aid in fat loss and ensure the proper function of your body processes, such as your metabolism.

7. Oatmeal

Oatmeal is a great source of carbohydrates due to both its low glycemic index (GI) value and the fact it is minimally processed. The benefits of a low-GI diet include:

  • Better micronutrient profile and more fiber
  • Increased satiety
  • Decreased hunger
  • Lower subsequent energy intake (second meal effect)
  • Fat loss

In short, low-GI foods can enhance fat loss for those looking to lose weight, and provide a constant source of carbs for muscle preservation.

Wait, aren’t carbs bad? Not if you do them right:

  • Your Complete Carbohydrate Prep Plan
  • The Power of Carbs
  • Eat What You Want: Your Macros And The Truth About Carbs

8. Whole Grains

Whole grains digest more efficiently and provide more nutrients than refined grains. This promotes sustained energy levels and overall health. In particular, brown rice can help boost your growth hormone levels, which are critical for encouraging lean muscle growth, fat loss, and strength gains.

9. Fruits and Vegetables

Fruits and vegetables are a rich source of antioxidants, which are essential for the healthy functioning of your immune system. They also provide tons of other nutrients, such as vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta-carotene. Finally, your body requires the fiber these fruits and vegetables provide to aid in proper digestion and nutrient uptake.

10. Healthy Fats

I know the thought of consuming fat makes some of you shudder, but good fats are essential for muscle growth. In fact, they play an essential role in hormone production (testosterone and growth hormones), which helps drive muscle growth and strength gains. In addition, fats are needed for many important maintenance functions.

Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are good fats. You can find them in salmon, other fishes, nuts, leafy veggies, oils such as flaxseed, avocados, and seeds. They are also all rich in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.

That covers what to eat. What about how to eat and train to gain mass?

Gaining Muscle Mass Best Reads

  • 3 Nutritional Strategies Every Athlete Needs
    Simplifying your approach to nutrition is the key to making positive and sustainable changes to your health and performance.
  • Do Drop Sets Build Muscles?
    One of the reasons drop sets have been around so long is because they are effective. They can help you to rapidly pack on muscle.
  • Fuel To Be Strong: Nutrition For Strength Athletes
    Nutrition plays a huge role in improving body composition. But as a strength athlete, you don’t need to eat for aesthetics.
  • Eat Big To Get Big?
    While fat loss or weight gain are both energy-dependent processes, muscle gain is the result of the integration of training and nutritional stimuli—namely, lifting weights and consuming protein.
  • Eat For Your Sport: Cutting Calories Is Not The Answer
    Long-term calorie restriction, cutting calories, and skipping meals is not the answer. Tailor your diet to your needs to achieve the outcomes you desire.

As Dr. Adam puts it, “You need to make sure that you’re fueling your body so that it can recover.” Essentially, resistance training creates micro tears in your muscles, she explains. The muscle repairs itself, and your muscles become bigger and stronger, but they still need the right building blocks, like protein, to do so, she says. If you decide to bulk up by eating junk, you’ll gain fat along with muscle. These strategies will help you gain weight the right way.

Start slowly

It’s tempting to go overboard, but eating too much, too quickly could cause gastrointestinal problems. “Our bodies like certainty and routine,” says Christen Cupples Cooper, a registered dietician and assistant professor at the College of Health Professions at Pace University. Although side effects vary by person, adding too many calories quickly upsets your normal routine, and may cause an upset stomach, bloating, heartburn, diarrhea, or constipation.

Before doing anything, you’ll want to figure out your baseline, Melanie Boehmer, M.S., R.D., CDN, CISSN at Lenox Hill Hospital. Then, you’ll want to add about 250 calories a day and reassess at the end of the week. So, if you’re currently eating 2500 calories a day, bump that up to 2750 calories. The goal is to gain anywhere from half a pound to a pound a week she says.

“You don’t want to just dump a bunch into your system,” she explains. “You want to do it slowly.”

Increase portion sizes

Cooper says it’s easier to increase calories by having larger meals and a few snacks, instead of simply eating more meals. “For example, if you have two scrambled eggs on toast for breakfast, have three scrambled eggs on whole wheat toast with a piece of fruit or container of yogurt with fruit.” Cooper also recommends snacking on nuts, which have omega-3 fatty acids and protein that help build muscle.

Use Protein Supplements Strategically

Protein supplements aren’t a magic bullet when it comes to building muscle. If you lift weights, train hard and eat right, there’s no reason why you can’t gain muscle weight without them. Case in point: A 2019 study shows that whether you get your protein from milk or whey, the amount of muscle weight you gain will be much the same. Even with the use of various sophisticated methods—including DEXA, MRI, and ultrasound scans—to assess muscle growth, there was no difference in results between the milk and whey groups. In other words, as long as you’re getting enough high-quality protein in your diet each day—at least 0.7 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight—you can build muscle without the use of supplements.
“Where protein supplements do help is by making it convenient and easy to provide your muscles with the nutrients they need to grow, which is why I use them myself,” says Christian Finn, a UK-based trainer and exercise scientist. “Supplements are not necessary for gaining muscle weight,” he says, “but they do make hitting your daily protein target a whole lot easier.”

Ramp Up Your Protein Frequency

It was once believed that small meals, eaten 5 to 6 times a day, would rev up your metabolism and help you lose fat faster than three larger ones. We now know that to be false. Given the same number of calories, whether you eat large or small meals doesn’t make much difference one way or the other. Studies show that the amount of fat you lose will be much the same.
Spreading your protein intake evenly throughout the day, however, has been shown to speed up the rate at which new muscle protein is laid down. In other words, eating small meals more often won’t help you lose fat faster. But increasing your protein frequency so that you’re getting 25-40 grams of high-quality protein 3-5 times a day may have a small but positive impact on the amount of muscle weight you gain over time.

Boehmer recommends eating protein that has plenty of lucein, an essential amino acid that helps stimulate muscle mass.

Don’t Fear Fat

High-fat keto diets have spiked in popularity the past few years. But you don’t need to go “full keto” to enjoy the muscle-building benefits that fat has to offer. In fact, simply including one or two high fat meals in your diet has a number of benefits for anyone who wants to gain muscle weight.
“For one thing, some folks tend to burn off a lot of calories throughout the day, and have a hard time eating enough to maintain their weight, let alone gain any,” Finn says. “That’s where the addition of some high fat meals can help,” he adds. Because fat contains roughly twice as many calories as carbohydrate or protein, you don’t need to eat as much to get the same amount of energy. Adding an avocado to your salad, for example, or eating a high-fat snack like pistachio nuts, is a simple and tasty way to bump up your daily calorie intake.
What’s more, fat also has a number of interesting benefits in the muscle-building department. In one study, a post-workout drink containing whole milk was found to be more “anabolic” than fat-free milk. Although both drinks led to an increase in protein balance, it was the high fat whole milk that delivered the greatest results. In another trial, eating a whole egg did a better job of boosting muscle protein synthesis than eating just the white, even when protein intake was identical.

Eat clean

Adam advises against relying on junk food and supplements for extra calories. Instead, focus more on legumes, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, and of course, protein. Need meal ideas? Use this daily meal plan to gain weight, courtesy of Leslie Bonci, R.D., a sports dietitian for the Kansas City Chiefs:

Breakfast

Select from one of the following menus

  • Orange juice (12-oz glass)
  • Bowl of Cheerios (large) with granola added, skim milk
  • Bagel or 2 slices of wheat toast with 1 tablespoon of peanut butter on each piece

or

  • 2 pieces of fruit
  • A glass of juice (12 oz)
  • A breakfast sandwich on an English muffin
  • Scrambled eggs (2)
  • 2 pieces of ham
  • 2 slices of cheese

or

  • Bagel with 1 tablespoon of peanut butter
  • Smoothie, made with:
    • 1 scoop of protein powder
    • 8 oz yogurt
    • 12 oz skim milk
    • 1 cup of frozen fruit

Roman Larin / EyeEm

Post-Workout Snack

Eat something within 15 minutes of finishing your workout, even if you are not hungry. If you exercise more than once a day, you need to eat something after every workout. Choose between one of the following options that are optimized to recover as well as increase weight.

  • Sports drink
  • Snack (choose one)
    • Peanut butter and jelly sandwich
    • A container of yogurt with granola
    • A small bag of trail mix and sports drink
    • Energy bar

Lunch

Select from one of the following menus

  • Submarine sandwich on whole wheat (12-inch), made with one of the following proteins:
    • Chicken
    • Tuna
    • Steak
    • Ham and cheese
  • Baked chips
  • Juice

or

  • Grilled chicken salad
  • Baked potato
  • Juice

or

  • Bagel sandwich with turkey, cheese, and fruit
  • Pasta with sauce and 2 pieces of chicken
  • Salad

or

  • Omelet with 3 eggs, cheese, vegetables,
  • Hash browns
  • Toast (2 slices)

Afternoon Snack

  • Drink (choose one)
    • Low-fat milk
    • Juice
  • Snack (choose one)
    • Banana with peanut butter (2 tablespoons)
    • Trail mix with cereal, nuts, and dried fruit (1 cup or 2 handfuls)
    • Cheese and whole wheat crackers
    • Cereal (large bowl)

Dinner

Split your plate evenly between protein and carbohydrates

  • Protein (choose one)
    • Steak
    • Chicken
    • Fish
    • Pork
    • Turkey
  • Carbohydrates (choose one)
    • Pasta
    • Baked potato
    • Rice
    • Corn
  • Side (choose one)
    • Salad
    • Cooked vegetables
    • Fruit
  • Drink (choose one)
    • Low-fat milk
    • Juice

Late-Night Snack

  • Snack (choose one)
    • Smoothie or protein shake with ice added
    • Peanut butter and jelly sandwich

The Editors of Men’s Health The editors of Men’s Health are your personal conduit to the top experts in the world on all things important to men: health, fitness, style, sex, and more.

How to Gain Healthy Weight

Believe it or not, weight gain is just as hard for some people as weight loss is for others, especially men, notes Marjorie Nolan, MS, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. “Depending on how underweight you are, it could be just as unhealthy as being overweight,” she says. A poor diet can lead to health complications, whether you’re thin or fat.

If you need to gain healthy weight, overeating, especially empty-calorie foods, isn’t the answer. “You want to eat right so that you’re gaining muscle and not fat,” Nolan explains.

Follow these 10 steps to smartly gain muscle — and weight:

1. Eat frequently. One of the first steps toward healthy weight gain is eating every three hours. “If you go for too long without eating, you metabolically start to slow down, which is unhealthy as well,” Nolan says. “When you eat every couple of hours, you’ll eat more calories and prevent your body from losing lean body mass.”

2. Go for variety. Eat at least three different foods at every meal and snack. “At meals, that’s easy,” comments Nolan. “You probably eat a protein, a starch, and a fruit or vegetable.” But you want to be sure to include at least three different foods when you’re eating snacks as well. “That way you’re getting different nutrients to build muscle with.” Good snacks for weight gain, for instance, might be yogurt with fruit and peanut butter with crackers. “Trail mix is also an excellent snack choice because it has everything in it,” adds Nolan.

3. Choose higher calorie foods. “When we think high-calorie foods, we think fat,” Nolan explains. Fat typically has more than twice as many calories as the same amount of protein or carbohydrates. But stick to the unsaturated, heart-healthy fats found mainly in vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, olives, and avocados. Avoid coconut and palm oil because they contain saturated fats. Good choices for calorie-rich weight-gain foods include nuts, seeds, and nut butters such as peanut butter and almond butter.

4. Drink lots of fluids. Drinking 100 percent fruit juices and smoothies can provide calories along with vitamins and minerals, advises Nolan. Make a smoothie with 1 percent to 2 percent milk or low-fat yogurt, strawberries or bananas, and peanut butter. “You can add a tablespoon or two of protein powder or plain whey powder to bump up the calories and protein content.” Even if you are trying to gain weight, Nolan warns, “be cautious when using just protein powders to make shakes or smoothies because they can be jam-packed with artificial stuff.”

5. Eat at bedtime. Have a healthy snack or late dinner. “At nighttime our bodies are really active. Our cells are regenerating and repairing and healing. By eating later or having a snack before bedtime, you’re allowing your body to draw from your day’s worth of calories,” says Nolan.

6. Get enough sleep. “Your body has to have time to rebuild muscle and store it in a healthy way versus just turning food into fat,” Nolan says.

7. Be active. Resistance training is how to gain muscle — it builds muscle tissue that helps ensure healthy weight gain, Nolan explains. You should do resistance training at least two to three days a week. Be certain to do at least one to two strength training exercises per muscle group. “Don’t neglect cardiovascular exercise like jogging, bicycling, or swimming because the heart is a muscle that needs to be worked out, too,” adds Nolan. “If you gain weight, you’ll have more muscle to which your heart needs to circulate oxygen and nutrients.”

8. Go protein-crazy. You should eat 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, which is equal to about 94 grams for a 125-pound person. Make sure to have some form of protein at every meal. Healthy, protein-rich foods that will help you gain weight include low-fat dairy, lean meats, and nuts or seeds. “Protein is most easily converted into lean muscle mass,” Nolan says. It is essential to gain muscle mass.

9. Say yes to carbs. Carbohydrates are another food group that can help with weight gain. “If you want to build muscle mass, you need to eat enough starch or carbs to use the extra protein,” Nolan says. “Starches or carbohydrates are stored in the muscles and they provide the energy you need to create body tissue. If you want to build muscle, you need enough carbs to fuel the process.” Good carbs include multigrain, rye, or pumpernickel breads, beans, lentils, couscous, brown rice, and sweet potatoes.

10. Keep a food diary. This strategy can really help when you’re trying to gain weight. “People who need to gain weight often don’t realize how many calories they’re eating,” notes Nolan. Keep track of what and how frequent you drink and eat. If you haven’t gained weight, you can use your food log to figure out where to fit in more foods or fluids.

Gaining weight can be a challenge. If you focus on building lean muscle mass instead of fat, though, you can gain weight in a healthy way.

Testimonial #1

In May 2018 I was driving to work and I felt like the button on my pants was going to fly off and hit the windshield. I was so uncomfortable and so disgusted with myself. I had been working out consistently, but ignoring my nutrition. My family was eating out more than we needed to and when we ate at home, the unhealthy side dishes filled the majority of my plate. That day I spoke to my sister and my husband and told them both I had to do something, even if it was wrong, I needed to make a change. I made an appointment for a check up and swallowed my pride as I asked about The Healthy Weigh Now. I was a college athlete, I worked out 5 days a week, I knew what I was supposed to do to lose weight, but I wasn’t doing it. I needed structure, a goal, and accountability. The informational meeting got me excited and also scared me to death. How could I possibly make such drastic changes? It was a lot to digest (pun intended) and I spent the next few days reading through the paperwork while still eating everything I could find, the unhealthier the better. I met with Rosie on a Thursday afternoon and vowed to start the next day. I haven’t looked back since that decision was made. I’ve stumbled and I’m definitely not perfect, but I’m not the same person I was the day I walked into Rosie’s office. I began my journey while my husband began his, he chose a program that worked for him and he supported me every step of the way. We experimented with recipes, we discovered 101 ways to roast veggies, and every day we got a little healthier. Every little choice led to a new lifestyle for us and our children. I didn’t really understand what people meant when they said it had to be a lifestyle change, not a diet, but all of a sudden I knew exactly what they meant.

This journey has been about so much more than the weight. I am more intentional now, not just in my food, but in every aspect of my life. I don’t think it’s an accident that during this journey my husband and I also started a journey to get financially healthy, we’d always been pretty good with money, but not great. Just like my lifestyle, I was doing some things right and some things very wrong. So we made big changes there as well and now I feel like we are in a better place than we’ve ever been. My husband and I have been together for 25 years, we met as young high schoolers, and this journey has made our marriage better than ever.

As of today, I’ve lost 70lbs, I went from nearly busting out of my size 18 pants to being able to buy petite medium clothes off the rack without even trying them on. My husband has lost 55lbs. We feel like new people and I think it’s true that life really does begin at 40. My journey is not over, I still have about 15lbs of fat that I plan to lose, this part of the process has been slower, but I know that if I stay focused, I’ll get there. You can do this and you are worth it. Work hard and stay consistent and you’ll find success, not just in your pant size, but in your whole life. This program has been life changing.

Testimonial #2

My name is Paul and this is my health and wellness journey. In 2017, I was at my peak weight of 245lbs. I was always tired, had no energy, I wasn’t sleeping well, and I lacked motivation for everyday things. I had a health scare which led me to get my first physical in many years. Doctor told me that I was Pre-Diabetic and if I stayed on this course it will eventually become Diabetic. I left the doctor’s office thinking hard about my life, my future, my family and my overall health. I came to a crossroad and decided to correct my course.

Based on my doctor’s recommendation, I joined The Healthy Weigh Now. Thanks to Rosie, I began a life-changing journey. I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into at first. The thought of having to lose weight seemed like a daunting and discouraging task. Day after day, week after week, and eventually month after month, I kept at it…10lbs, 20lbs, 30lbs. The impossible became a reality and eventually it was part of my daily routine.

Fast forward to a little over a year, my cholesterol is much better, my A1C counts are drastically down, my blood pressure is good, I sleep very well, and overall, I lost 75lbs total. I went from a 2X-Large to Medium shirt size, from size 40 pants to 32. Overall, I feel great (like I’m 30 again!), full of energy and I’m healthier. I continue to eat healthy and I work out four to five times a week at the gym to get fit and maintain my health. What started off as an unbearable task has turned into a lifestyle. Being healthy is my normal now.

This past year has motivated me to better myself through health, wellness and fitness. As part of this journey, I’ve worked hard to become a Certified Fitness Instructor. As I share my fitness story, I have the privilege of helping others in their fitness journey.

Testimonial #3

After taking cancer medication for a long period, Jackie had gained a lot of weight, as high as 280 lbs. She started getting herself healthy, but after a while reached a plateau around 230. Our general practitioner at Fairfax Family Practice, Dr. Amy Nobu, suggested the Healthy Weigh Now program, which was being done at Fairfax Family Practice, and which she had other patients who had success with.

The doctors told Jackie that these kind of programs work best when you do it as a family – that way you don’t have the situation where one family member is trying to ‘be good’ and eat healthy, while surrounded in the house by unhealthy (but highly tempting!) foods which your fellow family members are eagerly consuming. I was doubtful because I had previously lost what I then thought was a good amount of weight (going from 220 to 200 lbs.), only to gain it back when I thought I had lost all the weight I had to and could now relax ‘a bit’ (maybe a lot?).

When I started Healthy Weigh Now, I weighed over 220 lbs., and Jackie weighed 230. I thought, maybe if this is successful, I’ll be able to get my weight down to 175 lbs. or so and then I’d be happy and call it a success. But I was a bit fearful about my ability to succeed because I thought I’d start getting too hungry from eating so much less and wouldn’t be able to keep it up. Rosie quickly showed us that these fears were unfounded, because they were based on incorrect assumptions:

First, ‘weight’ is not the main factor I should be concerned about: The important factor is the percentage of body fat – if you get that to the right percentage, then your weight will reach the level which is appropriate for you. When I started Healthy Weigh Now, my body fat percentage was nearly 38%.

Secondly, you DO NOT eat less in this program – you eat MORE vegetables, more unprocessed lean protein. There’s no way you are going hungry!

THEN and Rosie kept us focused on the program through the whole year – we recently celebrated our one-year Healthy Weigh Now anniversary! She has given us encouragement when we had successes and kept us upbeat and focused through the inevitable ups and downs. Now, my body fat percentage is around 13%, and I have lost over 80 pounds, both much greater progress than I ever thought possible! Jackie has lost over 50 lbs. and is still working to get her fat percentage down to the optimum range but is no longer taking any prescription medications. She will continue her weight loss journey.

Most importantly, we’ve learned a new way to eat, conscious of a proper balance of protein, carbs and fats. Perhaps the most important part of the program is the lifetime membership and continuing support we receive from Rosie, even as we transition from weight loss to maintenance, so we can continue to eat right throughout our lives and the gains that we made don’t end up being lost through reversion to bad habits.

And keep in mind that you don’t have to do much to see results. People who lifted weights just twice a week gained about three pounds of muscle after 10 weeks, according to a review published in Current Sports Medicine Reports.

Beyond strength training, if you can take your overall exercise program up a notch, do so. Older adults who did high-intensity interval training (HIIT), which entails short spurts of high-intensity exercise, not only lost weight but also had less DNA damage to muscle cells. And this helped trigger growth of new muscle.

Get enough shut-eye

“Research has consistently shown that people who are overweight or obese get less sleep than those of normal weight,” stresses Apovian. “When you’re sleep deprived, your body ramps up its production of hormones that increase hunger, like the stress hormone cortisol and the appetite stimulating hormone ghrelin.” Older men (over age 67) who get less than five hours of sleep a night are almost four times as likely to be obese as those who get between seven and eight, and older women are more than twice as likely, according to a Case Western Reserve University study.

It’s also a good idea to keep your sleep schedule consistent, meaning you get up and go to bed at roughly the same time every day. Older men and women who don’t follow this healthy habit add another risk factor for being obese into the mix, according to a study published in the International Journal of Obesity.

Try occasional fasting

We’re not talking juice cleanses. Rather, research now shows that a specific type of intermittent fasting, known as fasting-mimicking, can trigger weight loss as well as improve your overall health. People who followed this type of diet plan — where they consumed only 750 to 1,000 calories five days out of each month but otherwise ate normally — lost, on average, six pounds, shed one to two inches of their waistline, and saw both their blood pressure and levels of IGF-1 (a substance linked to increased cancer risk) drop significantly, according to a University of Southern California study published last year.

How might it work? “When you gain weight, the nerves in your hypothalamus that conduct signals from your fat cells to the rest of your brain become damaged,” says Louis Aronne, M.D., director of the Center for Weight Management and Metabolic Clinical Research at Weill Cornell Medical College. “As a result, your brain doesn’t realize that you’re full, so it keeps signaling you to eat.”

But when you take a day to not eat very much, he says, “you’re reducing stress on your hypothalamic nerves, so it gives them time to recuperate.” That day of rest for your nerves could be especially important for older people, he says, because of the damage that oxidative stress can further do to your weight-regulating system.

As for how to start, “I tell patients who want to try it to eat only about 800 calories twice a week, focusing mainly on vegetables, protein and healthy oils such as olive oil,” he says.

To help yourself feel fuller longer on days you’re not fasting, Aronne recommends following a low-carb diet in which about 30 percent of your calories come from protein and the rest from nonstarchy veggies, nuts and beans. Craving bread? “I tell patients that the best time to eat these types of starchy carbohydrates is at the very end of the meal, after they’ve had their veggies and protein,” he says. Aronne’s research shows that people who eat this way not only have lower levels of blood sugar and insulin after eating but also have bigger boosts in hormones like GLP 1, which help keep you feeling fuller for longer.

Practice mindful eating

If you think your weight gain may have something to do with midlife stress (aging parents, college tuition bills and managerial responsibilities at work, anyone?), this approach may be especially helpful to have in your weight-loss toolbox. “A lot of times eating, especially mindless eating, can be stress related, and meditation techniques can be helpful in terms of both alleviating anxiety and making you more conscious of how much you’re consuming,” explains Apovian.

People who practice this technique — which involves paying attention to how hungry or full you feel, planning meals and snacks, eating as a singular activity (without, say, also reading the paper or watching TV), and zeroing in on how your food really tastes — may be more successful at weight loss. People who participated in an online mindfulness-based weight-loss program, for instance, lost more weight (on average, about 4.2 pounds) than a control group, according to a North Carolina State University study presented last year at the European Congress on Obesity.

Need some tips to get you started? Eat slowly (put your fork down between bites, and chew your food well), try to have meals without any outside distractions, and follow the one-bite rule when it comes to favorite but fattening foods like desserts. You can find more suggestions here.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on May 9, 2018. It has been updated with the AARP Top Tips video.

Tips for gaining weight safely and things to avoid

The following tips can help a person gain weight quickly and safely:

Eat three to five meals a day

Eating at least three meals a day can make it easier to increase calorie intake. Snacking between meals can also help to increase the number of calories in the diet.

Weight training

Share on PinterestWeight training at least three times a week will aid in gaining and maintaining lean muscle mass.

Weight training at least three times a week is essential to healthy weight gain. This will aid in gaining and maintaining lean muscle mass.

To continue gaining lean body mass, a person will need to vary and develop their workouts by increasing either the weight they lift or the number of reps or sets.

Compound movements are one way in which a person can build muscle effectively. These include weight lifts that involve multiple muscle groups, such as deadlifts, squats, and bench presses.

People who work out regularly must pay attention to their calorie intake to ensure that they are providing their body with sufficient fuel.

Eat enough protein

A diet with the right amount of protein will support muscle growth. In combination with regular weight training, consuming 0.8–2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight will increase a person’s muscle mass. This is essential to healthy weight gain.

Foods high in protein include eggs, meats, fish, nuts, and legumes.

Eat meals with fibrous carbohydrates and healthful fats

Including foods rich in fibrous carbohydrates and healthful fats in every meal will help to increase the number of both calories and nutrients in the diet.

These foods provide an essential energy source to maintain a regular exercise regime, and to support muscle growth. People should use whole-food sources of carbohydrates, such as brown rice and beans, rather than refined and processed sources.

Distinguishing between healthful and unhealthful fats is vital. Healthful fats are generally monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats, which occur in foods such as nuts, avocado, vegetable oils, and fish.

Unhealthful fats include saturated fats and trans fats. A healthful diet should limit saturated fats and avoid added trans fats. These types of fats are found in fried and baked foods as well as in fatty meats such as beef, pork, and lamb.

Drink high-calorie smoothies or shakes

People with a small appetite may find a high-calorie shake or smoothie more appealing than a large meal. These provide nutrient-dense calories without making a person feel overly full.

Suitable smoothies can include the following ingredients:

  • nut butter
  • fruits
  • milk
  • yogurt
  • nuts
  • seeds
  • greens, such as spinach

Seek help where needed

Health and fitness professionals provide motivation and useful advice for developing diet and exercise plans to support healthy weight gain.

Similarly, a registered dietitian will be able to provide meal plans to increase calorie intake. Also, they can help to ensure that a person is gaining weight safely.

5 Ways to Gain Weight In a Healthy Way

Most of the people I meet ask for my advice about how to lose weight, but some of my clients are actually trying to pack on pounds, and it’s not as simple as it may seem. Every once in a while I’ll read about an actor who had to gain weight for a role, and they talk about how awesome it was to down pints of ice cream, pasta, bread, cheeseburgers, and doughnuts. That’s one way to gain weight, but it’s not the best way. (Related: More Women Are Trying to Gain Weight Through Diet and Exercise)

I sometimes work with clients who’ve lost weight due to dental surgery, a digestive problem, stress, or an illness, and are trying to get back to a healthy weight. And as a sports nutritionist, I also work with pro athletes who tend to lose weight over the course of a grueling season. In all of these cases, the goal is to gain weight while optimizing health-and there’s a science to it. After all, the old phrase “you are what you eat” is absolutely true-nutrients from food are literally the raw materials your body uses to construct new cells. A junk food–filled diet devoid of nutrients doesn’t give your body much to work with. I always say it’s like constructing a house with cardboard and tape instead of bricks and mortar. In other words, it’s not just about calories.

Here are five “good gain” rules I share with my clients:

1. Don’t let more than four hours go by without eating.

Your body needs a continuous supply of energy since it’s like an engine that’s always turned on (your heart is always beating, blood is circulating, your brain and muscles are working). When you skip meals, you deprive your body of the fuel it needs to keep going. The result is a dip into your energy piggy bank, which unfortunately includes muscle mass. The best way to prevent your body from losing any important tissue is to eat regular meals, spaced about three to five hours apart. If you’re trying to gain new muscle tissue, meal timing is especially critical. Sometimes my clients tell me they “eat all the time,” but when they actually start keeping a food journal they realize just how erratic their patterns are. Consistency is key. (Related: The Muscle-Building Foods to Eat for More Definition)

2. Eat several foods at once.

Always aim for at least three food groups. Instead of just a banana or a handful of nuts, top a few slices of whole-grain toast with almond butter and banana slices (which, BTW, is Khloé Kardashian’s go-to post-workout breakfast), along with a glass of organic skim milk or a milk substitute. A wider variety provides your body with a broader spectrum of nutrients to work with throughout the day.

3. Eat healthy, but dense foods.

The best way to rack up extra nutrition without having to eat huge quantities of food or resort to junk is to choose nutrient-rich foods that pack a lot of carbohydrates, protein, or fat into a small serving. Dried fruit is a great example. With the water removed, the portion shrinks by about 75 percent, so a cup of grapes turns into a quarter cup of raisins. Just be sure to look for dried fruits with no added sugar or preservatives. For another nourishing, power-packed snack, fold rolled oats, dark chocolate chips, and minced dried fruit into almond butter. Spoon out portions about the diameter of a quarter, roll them into little balls, wrap in waxed paper, and snack on them throughout the day. (Related: 3 Easy-to-Make Protein Ball Recipes That Will Replace Those Boring Bars)

4. Drink your food.

Liquids aren’t as filling as solid food, so when you’re trying to gain weight, they can add nutrition without making you feel stuffed or bloated. Good choices include 100 percent fruit juice, organic skim milk or milk alternatives (such as organic soy, or hemp), and smoothies. Smoothies are ideal (over milkshakes) because you can bolster them with all kinds of good stuff, like wheat germ, nut butter, carrot juice, and protein powder. (Try Emma Stone’s high-calorie, post-workout smoothie for gaining lean muscle.)

5. Eat right before bed.

A lot of our healing, repair, and regeneration takes place while we sleep. It’s like rush hour for building muscle and lean tissue, so eating a healthy snack right before bed ensures a fresh supply of nutrients that are available to “go to work” inside the body. A great option that won’t leave you feeling stuffed might be a small bowl of pasta salad made with 100 percent whole-grain pasta (wheat or a gluten-free alternative), vinaigrette made with extra-virgin olive oil, chopped or shredded veggies, and a lean protein such as beans, chopped chicken breast, or an organic crumbled cheese.

Just like losing weight is a goal for some people, gaining weight is a goal for many others. And figuring out how to gain weight can be equally as difficult, for many different reasons. Factors like genetics, medications, stress, chronic health problems, and mental health struggles like depression, anxiety, or an eating disorder, can all make putting on weight a physical and mental challenge.

“We constantly hear about the obesity epidemic, and our society places such an emphasis on weight loss and dieting, but there are so many individuals out there who are struggling with the opposite problem,” Marla Scanzello, M.S., R.D., director of dietary service at Eating Recovery Center, tells SELF. “It is essential for to recognize that their needs are different and to tune out the unhelpful dieting and weight loss messages surrounding them,” Scanzello adds.

The truth is that for some people, being their healthiest self means gaining some weight. “Being underweight puts you at risk for a variety of health issues, including fragile bones, fertility issues, hair loss, a weakened immune system, fatigue, and malnutrition,” Alissa Rumsey, M.S., R.D., C.S.C.S., spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, tells SELF.

Of course, healthy weight ranges will be different for every person. If you’re not sure what that means for you, definitely talk with your general physician or a registered dietitian. This is tricky, and what works for your friends won’t necessarily work for you, so it’s essential to do what’s right for your body and keeps you nourished, happy, and healthy.

(If you have an eating disorder, seeking help from a treatment center, or just a trusted doctor, is essential. You should not change your diet, count calories, or try to put on weight on your own before speaking with a professional who can help you come up with the right plan for you.)

If you are looking for ways to make weight gain easier, here are some tips for doing so in a healthy way.

Go get a physical.

If you don’t already know why weight gain is tough for you, it’s a good idea to see your doctor. Some chronic health conditions like hyperthyroidism and some digestive issues like Crohn’s disease can cause weight loss. You may also just have a very high metabolism, Rumsey says. Figuring out the underlying cause (if there is one) and treating that will help you reach your goals.

Do a mental health check.

“Some people may lose weight during times of stress or depression and need to regain weight for optimal health,” Scanzello says. “In these cases, it may also be helpful for them to see a therapist to address the underlying emotional issues contributing to lack of appetite and/or weight loss.”

Weight problems can be a physical symptom of stress, so check in on yourself and assess your stress levels. If you realize you need to get them in check, or that you’re struggling with other things like depression or anxiety, seeing a therapist can help you sort things out.

Eat smaller meals throughout the day.

“Often it can feel overwhelming to sit down to a large plate of food, so start out by eating more frequent meals,” Rumsey suggests. “Eating every two to three hours can help you get a lot of calories in without feeling stuffed.” It can also help mitigate some of the GI discomfort you may feel. “When individuals who have lost a significant amount of weight start increasing their food intake, they often experience uncomfortable physical symptoms, such as constipation, gas, bloating, and stomach pain,” Scanzello says. It may just be more comfortable physically to spread out the extra food needed to gain weight throughout the day.

Drink smoothies and shakes.

Energy-dense liquids are an easy way to take in more calories without feeling too uncomfortably full. “It is often easier to drink a lot of calories than to eat those calories via real food,” Rumsey notes. You can also pack them with vitamins and nutrients, and drink them on the go. Other calorically dense drinks can help, too. “Caloric fluids like milk and juice can also be added or used to replace fluids, such as water and diet drinks, to help meet energy needs for weight gain,” Scanzello says. Just be cautious of how much sugar you’re drinking—excess sugar can have negative health consequences, and you don’t want to fill up on sugar instead of nutrient-rich foods.

Focus on calorically dense but healthy foods.

It’s really important that you’re getting a healthy mix of nutrients, not just calories. “Weight gain due to more calories from unhealthy food sources like large amounts of salty, greasy, sugary, highly processed foods can cause other health problems down the road, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and heart disease,” Rumsey says.

Also, if you’re not loading up on healthful foods, you run the risk of remaining malnourished even after putting on weight. “It is best to increase food intake with a variety of foods and balance of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins to help replenish nutritional status,” Scanzello says. She suggests focusing on energy-dense foods, such as nuts, oils, dried fruit, granola, peanut butter, and other spreads and fats.

Cut back on cardio.

Scanzello emphasizes that for some people, exercise can be dangerous until you’ve reached a certain weight. “It is best to be medically cleared for exercise if underweight,” she says. If you’ve talked to your doctor and are given the go-ahead, Rumsey says stick to strength training over cardio. “For people looking to gain weight, I recommend an exercise regimen of mostly strength training, with very little cardio,” she says. Yes, you’ll still burn some calories lifting weights, but you will also put on muscle mass. Exercising a bit may also help stimulate your appetite, giving you an extra nudge toward reaching your goals.

Healthy Ways to Gain Weight If You’re Underweight

Weight loss is a serious issue in the United States. Consumers constantly see advertisements and news reports on trendy diets, flashy products, and magic pills promising to help them lose weight.

Given that the ongoing “battle of the bulge” is front and center for so many people, being too thin may seem like a good problem to have. But the reality is that being underweight can cause health problems.

Path to improved wellness

Fat has a bad reputation for causing people to be overweight and obese. However, not all fat is bad. In fact, breaking down and storing energy (calories) as fat is good. It’s just one of the many ways the body uses food to function, heal, and grow.

Stored energy from fat helps you get through a strenuous job or workout. It plays a key role in brain development, and in preventing inflammation (swelling) and blood clots. Fat contributes to healthy hair and skin, as well.

You can determine whether you are underweight by using a Body Mass Index (BMI) calculator. This online tool considers your weight, height, age, and gender to calculate a score. If your BMI is less than 18.5, you are underweight. Your doctor also can help determine if you’re underweight based on your height, weight, what you eat, and your activity level.

Your doctor may put you on a weight gain program if you are underweight. However, this is not permission to go crazy with junk food. Healthy weight gain requires a balanced approach, just like a weight loss program.

Eating junk food may result in weight gain. However, it will not satisfy the nutrition your body needs. Even if the fat, sugar, and salt in junk food doesn’t result as extra weight, it can still harm your body. For a healthy weight gain, the following tips can help:

  • Add healthy calories. You don’t need to drastically change your diet. You can increase calories by adding nut or seed toppings, cheese, and healthy side dishes. Try almonds, sunflower seeds, fruit, or whole-grain, wheat toast.
  • Go nutrient dense. Instead of eating empty calories and junk food, eat foods that are rich in nutrients. Consider high-protein meats, which can help you to build muscle. Also, choose nutritious carbohydrates, such as brown rice and other whole grains. This helps ensure your body is receiving as much nourishment as possible, even if you’re dealing with a reduced appetite.
  • Snack away. Enjoy snacks that contain plenty of protein and healthy carbohydrates. Consider options like trail mix, protein bars or drinks, and crackers with hummus or peanut butter. Also, enjoy snacks that contain “good fats,” which are important for a healthy heart. Examples include nuts and avocados.
  • Eat mini-meals. If you’re struggling with a poor appetite, due to medical or emotional issues, eating large amounts of food may not seem appealing. Consider eating smaller meals throughout the day to increase your calorie intake.
  • Bulk up. While too much aerobic exercise will burn calories and work against your weight goal, strength training can help. This includes weightlifting or yoga. You gain weight by building muscle.

Before beginning a weight gain program, talk to your doctor. Being underweight may be due to an underlying health problem. It won’t be corrected by diet changes. Your doctor will be able to help you track your progress. He or she will make sure that healthy changes are taking place.

Things to consider

People who are underweight typically are not getting enough calories to fuel their bodies. Often, they are also suffering from malnutrition. Malnutrition means you are not taking in enough vitamins and minerals from your food. If you’re underweight, you may be at risk for the following health issues:

  • Delayed growth and development. This is especially true in children and teens, whose bodies need plenty of nutrients to grow and stay healthy.
  • Fragile bones. A deficiency in vitamin D and calcium, along with low body weight, can lead to weak bones and osteoporosis.
  • Weakened immune system. When you don’t get enough nutrients, your body cannot store energy. This makes it difficult to fight illness. It may also be difficult for your immune system to recover after being sick.
  • Anemia. This condition can be caused by not having enough of the vitamins iron, folate, and B12. This can cause dizziness, fatigue, and headaches.
  • Fertility issues. In women, low body weight can lead to irregular periods, lack of periods, and infertility.
  • Hair loss. Low body weight can cause hair to thin and fall out easily. It also can cause dry, thin skin and health issues with teeth and gums.

Many underweight people are physically healthy. Low body weight is due to a variety of causes, including:

  • Genetics. If you’ve been thin since high school and it runs in your family, it’s likely that you were born with a higher-than-usual metabolism. You also may have a naturally small appetite.
  • High physical activity. If you’re an athlete, you probably know that frequent workouts can affect your body weight. However, high physical activity also can be a part of an active job or an energetic personality. If you’re on your feet a lot, you may burn more calories than people who are more sedentary (inactive).
  • Illness. Being sick can affect your appetite and your body’s ability to use and store food. If you’ve recently lost a lot of weight without trying, it may be a sign of disease, such as thyroid problems, diabetes, digestive diseases, or even cancer. Talk to your doctor about sudden weight loss.
  • Medicines. Certain prescription medicines can cause nausea and weight loss. Some treatments, such as chemotherapy, can reduce appetite and worsen weight loss from illness.
  • Psychological issues. Our mental well being affects every part of our lives. Things like stress and depression can disrupt healthy eating habits. Severe body image fears and distortions can lead to eating disorders. If you’re suffering from damaging emotional issues, talk to your doctor. He or she can help you get the care, assistance, or counseling you may need.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • How do I gain weight if I’m not hungry?
  • Is being underweight more serious for babies?
  • What are some affordable, healthy foods to help me gain weight?
  • Should I stop exercising if I am underweight?
  • Should I stop taking my prescription medicine if I am underweight?

Resources

  • National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, Calculate Your Body Mass Index
  • U.S. National Library of Medicine, Body Weight

Good foods to eat to gain weight and muscle

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