Evidence Based Research To fulfill our commitment to bringing our audience accurate and insightful content, our expert writers and medical reviewers rely on carefully curated research.
Read Our Editorial Policy
Using both use energy- and nutritionally dense foods, counting calories (the fun way), and getting plenty of sleep can help you gain weight without adverse health effects.
It’s hard to preach the perils of being underweight as the phrase “obesity epidemic” ages into its fourth decade, but still, weighing too little can pose serious health risks in both short-term and long-term scenarios.
According to the 2015-2016 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES)—a large-scale survey conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics—an estimated 1.5% of adults in America are underweight.
This potentially problematic issue is often associated with one or more of the following causes:
Underweight people often exhibit nutritional deficiencies, compromised immune systems, infertility, and other serious problems.
While it’s true that the above factors make it harder for underweight people to get to a healthier weight, it’s never impossible.
The first and most important step in making this happen involves mastering the distinction between nutritional and caloric density.
No matter how much a person weighs, if they gorge on high-calorie, nutritionally void foods and not much else, they will remain nutritionally starved.
On the other hand, a conventionally healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and lean meats may not provide the calories needed to reach weight gain goals.
In order to find the healthy middle ground, it’s helpful to identify each extreme within this two-sided spectrum:
Calorically dense (but nutritionally lacking) foods:
Nutritionally dense foods:
While there’s normally nothing wrong with fruits and veggies, if you’re looking to gain weight, you’ll need to step up the calorie intake a bit.
Thankfully, there’s a sizable middle ground of healthy, tasty, and calorically dense foods, such as the following:
Here’s the only caveat: Since many of these foods are minimally processed, the increased fiber and/or protein content makes them more filling.
The following pointers will help you get those calories in without feeling bloated and miserable all day.
The 2015-2020 edition of Dietary Guidelines for Americans from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides daily calorie recommendations that take into account age, gender, and activity level (sedentary, moderately active, and active).
As an example, let’s say our avatar is an underweight 32-year-old female who is moderately active.
According to the guidelines, her optimal caloric intake would be 2,000 calories.
To facilitate healthy, moderately gradual weight gain, she would need to increase that intake by 25-30%, which totals around 2,600 calories.
As convenient as it would be, this energy surplus is not the only determinant to weight gain; the “calories in minus calories out” formula doesn’t take into account metabolic, genetic, and medical history differences between people.
This is why consulting with a professional before starting a weight gain program is always a good idea.
Nonetheless, an energy surplus is essential to weight gain, since the body can’t deposit fat or rebuild muscle if it doesn’t have enough material.
How you eat is almost as important as what you eat, no matter what your dietary goals are.
In the case of weight gain, a set meal and snack schedule will do two important things:
Just like keeping a set workout or work schedule, this technique will allow for easily measurable, consistent results as you ease into the routine.
We’re mostly in agreement with the five-meals-a-day protocol, but this doesn’t mean it’s a perfect fit for everyone.
It’s also important not to fill up on water immediately before a meal, as this can prevent you from finishing your plate.
When it’s time to eat, prioritize the most calorically dense foods first, and then proceed to the leaner options, adding olive oil or sauces to boost calorie content.
Foregoing exercise in fear of negating your weight gain progress may seem like a logically sound move, but it’s a straight track to gaining the wrong kind of weight.
Strength training is especially important in this case, because increasing muscle density while adding a little fat at the same time gives you two avenues for weight gain while improving your overall body composition.
In order to find this sweet spot, it’s important that your workout is at least 80% weightlifting to 20% cardio, and that the cardio is more of a low-intensity warmup.
As long as you are safe and smart about lifting techniques, it’s better for muscle/weight gain to keep the weight high and the reps low.
Alongside diet and exercise, sleep is the third pillar supporting your weight gain/fitness goals.
Getting at least seven hours of quality sleep every night allows muscles to recover from exercise-induced damage, meaning they come back bigger and stronger.
Even if you’re unwilling or unable to exercise, this study from Sweden’s Uppsala University confirms what many of us have already experienced: sleep deprivation leads to poor dietary choices.
Combine high-calorie, nutritionally void foods, a lack of exercise, and insufficient sleep, and you’ll simply be trading in an underweight physique for a flabby one.
The difference between flabby and healthy weight gain is not the amount of calories alone, but what they’re “made of.”
Hopefully, it’s apparent by now that the best way to gain weight and maintain a healthy physique is to balance your efforts with restraint.
Choose foods that are both nutritionally and calorically dense, lift weights, measure your caloric intake, and eat on a schedule so you don’t accidentally skip a meal.
Establish this solid framework from the beginning, and you’ll spend less time strategizing and more time executing.
Subscribe now and never miss anything about the topics important to you and your health.