Being underweight can be just as unhealthy as being overweight, or moreso. As a result, you may experience problems with your immune system, fertility, and heart health.
If you’re trying to gain weight you may need to increase your calorie intake. This can be done by eating more often, choosing higher-calorie foods, and adding calories to your meals.
A common misconception is that you need to eat unhealthy, high-fat foods to gain weight. While these foods may help you increase your calorie intake, when taken in excess they’re also associated with an increased risk of heart disease and other health problems (8).
Instead, focus on eating nutritious, high-calorie foods which will help you achieve a healthy weight.
Here’s what you need to know about increasing your calorie intake to gain weight safely.
What Should My Calorie Intake Be To Gain Weight?
A calorie surplus is when you consume more calories than your body needs. This is necessary to gain weight. How many calories you need depends on your weight, age, height, activity level, body composition, and medical history.
Generally, men need more calories than women. And, active people need more calories than sedentary people.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends that men consume between 2,400-3,000 calories per day to maintain their weight. For women, the NIH recommends consuming between 1,600-2,400 calories per day (3).
To gain weight, you’ll need to consume more calories than your body needs. A good starting point is to add an extra 500 calories to your daily intake. This should help you gain about a pound (0.5 kg) of weight per week.
Read More: Does Milk Make You Gain Weight? The Truth About Calories In Dairy
How Do I Calculate Total Calorie Intake To Gain Weight?
To determine how many calories you need to eat to gain weight, start by calculating your basal metabolic rate (BMR). This is the number of calories your body needs to maintain basic functions, such as breathing and digesting food.
Once you know your BMR, multiply it by your activity level. This will give you an estimate of the number of calories you need to eat each day. An easier way to do this is to use an online calorie calculator.
For example, a sedentary 30-year-old man has a BMR of 2,040 calories. If he multiplies his BMR by 1.2 (a sedentary activity level), he needs 2,448 calories each day to maintain his weight. To gain weight, he would need to eat more than 2,448 calories per day.
If you want to gain weight slowly and steadily, aim to add 250-500 calories to your daily intake. This should help you gain about 0.5-1 pound (0.2-0.5 kg) each week. If you want to gain weight faster, you can increase your calorie intake by 500-1,000 calories per day.
Keep in mind that your goals for weight gain may depend on many individual factors. It’s important to talk to your doctor before you make any changes to your diet, especially if you have a medical condition.
What Are Some High-Calorie Foods I Can Eat?
High-calorie consumption alone shouldn’t translate to unhealthy practices. There are plenty of nutritious, high-calorie foods that can help you gain weight. Here are some examples:
- Nuts and nut butter: Almonds, walnuts, cashews, peanuts, peanut butter
- Seeds: Sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds
- Oils and fatty fish: Olive oil, salmon, tuna, mackerel
- Avocados: Whole avocados or avocado spread
- Dried fruit: Raisins, dates, apricots
- Whole grains: Quinoa, oats, whole wheat bread
- Starchy vegetables: Potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn
- Beans and legumes: Black beans, lentils, kidney beans
- Full-fat dairy: Milk, yogurt, cheese, cottage cheese
- Dark chocolate: Choose a bar with at least 70% cocoa
- Fruit juices and smoothies: 100% fruit juice, smoothies made with milk and yogurt
- Protein powder: Whey, casein, or plant-based protein
These are just a few examples of the high-calorie foods that can help you gain weight. Remember to focus on eating nutritious foods that will help you reach your goals in a healthy way.
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What Are Some Tips For Gaining Weight?
There are several helpful tips you can follow to make sure you’re gaining weight in a healthy way.
1. Eat Frequently Throughout The Day
Eating small meals or snacks every 3-4 hours will help increase your calorie intake. This is especially helpful if you have trouble eating large meals or are experiencing nausea or reflux.
2. Make Sure You’re Eating Enough Protein
Protein is essential for muscle growth (6). Aim to consume 0.5-1 gram of protein per pound (1-2 grams/kg) of body weight. Be careful not to overdo it, as protein is filling and may get in the way of you reaching your calorie goals. Your registered dietitian can help you determine a more individualized goal for protein intake.
3. Incorporate Weightlifting Into Your Routine
Weightlifting is a great way to build muscle mass (11). If you are able, try to strength train 3-4 times per week, using heavy weights and compound exercises. You can also start with body weight exercises if you’re a beginner or recently recovered from illness. This will help you build muscle and reach your weight gain goals.
4. Don’t Shy Away From Carbs
Carbohydrates are often demonized, but they’re essential for gaining weight. Carbs are the body’s preferred source of energy, so they’ll help you power through your workouts and reach your calorie goals (4).
Just be sure to focus on complex carbs, like those found in whole grains, starchy vegetables, and beans and legumes (15).
5. Avoid Ultra Processed Foods And Empty Calories
Even if you’re trying to gain weight, it’s important to focus on eating nutritious foods.
Ultra processed foods and those high in empty calories (like sweets and junk food) can contribute to weight gain, but they won’t do much for your overall health (17). Instead, focus on eating whole, minimally processed foods that will help you reach your goals in a healthy way.
6. Increase The Energy Density Of Your Meals
One way to make it easier to eat more calories is to increase the energy density of your meals. This means adding more fats and/or carbs to your meals. For example, you could add olive oil or avocado to your vegetables, or have a glass of milk with your meal instead of water.
Sauces and condiments can also help increase the energy density of your meals. Just be sure to choose ones that are high in healthy fats, like olive oil or avocado, and low in added sugar.
Read More: Does Insulin Make You Gain Weight? The Link Between Insulin And Weight Gain
7. Drink Calories
If you have trouble eating solid foods you can also get calories from liquids. Drinking your calories may help increase your energy intake (14).
Smoothies, shakes, and protein drinks are all great options. Just be sure to choose ones that are high in calories and nutrients, like those made with full-fat milk, yogurt, or protein powder.
8. Avoid Restrictive Diets
If you’re trying to gain weight, it’s important to avoid any type of diet that restricts certain foods or groups of foods. These types of diets can make it difficult to get the calories and nutrients you need, which can ultimately stall your weight gain progress.
9. Avoid Drinking Water Before Meals
Drinking water before meals can make you feel full, which may lead you to eat less and take in fewer calories (9). Instead, drink water after meals to help boost your calorie intake.
10. Sleep More
Sleep plays a crucial role in recovery and muscle growth (12). Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep every night to help your body recover from your workouts and reach your weight gain goals.
11. Consider Weight Gainer Supplements
If you’re having trouble reaching your calorie goals, you may want to consider using weight gainer supplements. These products are designed to help you increase your calorie intake and reach your goals.
Just be sure to choose a quality product from a reputable company, and read the label carefully to avoid any unwanted side effects. Talk to your doctor about any supplements you are thinking of trying, especially if you have any medical conditions.
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What Are The Health Risks Of Being Underweight?
Being underweight can lead to several health problems, including (20):
Impaired Immune Function
When you’re underweight, your immune system may not be as effective at fighting off illness. This is because being underweight can lead to a lower level of white blood cells, which are responsible for fighting infection (2).
Risk Of Osteoporosis
Being underweight can also lead to a loss of bone density, which can increase your risk of osteoporosis (13). Osteoporosis is a condition that causes bones to become fragile.
Underweight individuals are also at risk of malnutrition. Malnutrition is a condition that occurs when the body does not get enough of the nutrients it needs to function properly (10).
Underweight women may have difficulty getting pregnant. This is because being underweight can lead to irregular periods, which can make it difficult to ovulate (16).
Development Issues In Children
Underweight children may have delayed growth and development. This is because they’re not getting the calories and nutrients they need for proper growth (5).
What Are The Causes Of Being Underweight?
There are several potential causes of being underweight, including:
- Eating disorders: Anorexia nervosa and bulimia are two eating disorders that can lead to weight loss (7).
- Poor nutrition: Not consuming enough calories or nutrients can lead to weight loss.
- Illness: Certain medical conditions, such as cancer, HIV/AIDS, and thyroid problems, can cause weight loss, as can their treatments (18).
- Medications: Some medications, such as diuretics and antidepressants, can cause weight loss (1) (19).
- Stress: Chronic stress can lead to weight loss by causing the body to release hormones that break down muscle tissue, or by affecting appetite (21).
How Is Being Underweight Treated?
The treatment for being underweight will vary depending on the underlying cause. However, treatments may include:
- Making dietary changes: If you’re underweight due to poor nutrition, you may need to make changes to your diet. This may involve increasing your calorie and nutrient intake.
- Counseling: If your weight loss is due to an eating disorder, counseling can help you manage your disorder and return to a healthy weight.
- Medications: If your weight loss is due to an underlying medical condition, treatment will focus on that condition. This may involve taking medication to manage the condition, along with dietary strategies to help maximize your intake.
The Bottom Line
These are just a few tips to help you increase your calorie intake and healthily gain weight. Remember, the key is to focus on eating nutritious foods that will help you reach your goals. If you have any questions or concerns, be sure to speak with a registered dietitian or your healthcare provider.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- Antidepressants and body weight: a comprehensive review and meta-analysis (2010, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Body mass index and the risk of infection – from underweight to obesity – ScienceDirect (2020, sciencedirect.com)
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- Carbohydrates as a source of energy (1994, academic.oup.com)
- Children at risk for developmental delay can be recognized by stunting, being underweight, ill health, little maternal schooling or high gravidity (2010, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Dietary Protein and Muscle Mass: Translating Science to Application and Health Benefit (2019, mdpi.com)
- Eating disorders – Eating Disorders (2004, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Fats, Cholesterol, And Chronic Diseases – Eat for Life (1992, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Immediate pre-meal water ingestion decreases voluntary food intake in lean young male (2015, link.springer.com)
- Malnutrition: causes and consequences (2020, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Maximizing Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review of Advanced Resistance Training Techniques and Methods (2019, mdpi.com)
- Relationship between sleep and muscle strength among Chinese university students: a cross-sectional study (2017, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Relationship between underweight, bone mineral density and skeletal muscle index in premenopausal Korean women (2016, onlinelibrary.wiley.com)
- Solid Versus Liquid Calories: Current Scientific Understandings (2014, researchgate.net)
- The scientific basis for healthful carbohydrate profile (2017, tandfonline.com)
- Types of reproductive disorders in underweight and overweight young females and correlations of respective hormonal changes with BMI (2015, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Ultra-Processed Foods and Health Outcomes: A Narrative Review (2020, mdpi.com)
- Unintentional weight loss: Clinical characteristics and outcomes in a prospective cohort of 2677 patients (2017, journals.plos.org)
- Volume (weight) loss and blood pressure response following thiazide diuretics (1988, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- What is the impact of underweight on self-reported health trajectories and mortality rates: a cohort study (2017, biomedcentral.com)
- Work stress, weight gain and weight loss: evidence for bidirectional effects of job strain on body mass index in the Whitehall II study (2006, nature.com)