By Jenessa Connor
There's plenty of advice out there on how to slim down, but what if you're looking for healthy ways to gain weight?
Maybe you're underweight, or you've developed an interest in bodybuilding, or you just want to put on a few pounds of muscle mass. It may be tempting to simply double up on portions or indulge in extra dessert, but gaining weight in a healthy way is more nuanced than housing an entire cheesecake.
We spoke with a few experts to get their input on healthy ways to gain weight. They shared their best tips and go-to foods to add mass the right way.
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To gain weight in a healthy way, you need to create a "calorie surplus," says Tara Tomaino, RD, Nutrition Director at The Park in Berkeley Heights, NJ. "An individual needs to consume more calories than they burn."
How many more? That depends on a number of variables, including your body composition, biological sex, and level of daily activity. While a registered dietitian can help you calculate a daily calorie goal, you can try gradually upping your intake by 200 to 300 calories a day.
"This is not a license to go to town on fast food, desserts, and less healthy foods," Tomaino says. "When looking to gain weight for building muscle mass, you want to do so with nutrient-dense foods."
One of the easiest ways to increase your caloric intake is with healthy fats. Fat contains 9 calories per gram, while carbohydrates and protein only contain 4 calories per gram, Tomaino says. So adding a drizzle of olive oil and a few slices of avocado to your salad can increase your caloric intake without adding too much volume to your meal.
"Each meal should include 15 to 30 grams of protein — potentially more, depending on your total goal for the day — and some healthy carbohydrates," says Michelle Tierney, RDN, CPT.
Protein, of course, directly facilitates muscle repair and growth. And increasing your carbohydrate intake can allow you to go harder during your workouts, Tierney adds, which can be helpful when you're trying to make gains.
Along with nutrition, strength training should be part of your plan to gain weight. Tomaino recommends following a training program that uses progressive overload. This type of regimen can help you build muscle by gradually and systematically overloading the body through exercise intensity, volume, and frequency.
As with any health or fitness goal, there's no "magic bullet" food that will lead to healthy weight gain. You'll need to consistently incorporate a variety of nutrient-dense foods into your diet. Here are some expert recommendations.
"You can easily increase calories throughout the day by incorporating more olive oil into your diet," says Leah Forristall, RD, LDN, a registered dietitian based in Ashland, MA.
Avocado's versatility lends it to breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. "Spread it on toast, add it to your favorite dishes, or toss it into a smoothie or an egg omelet," Forristall says.
Fish and lean meat — including chicken, turkey, and red meat that's 90% lean or higher — are solid sources of complete protein, which your body needs for muscle repair and growth.
Mix high-fat nuts and seeds with carbohydrate-rich dried fruits, cereal, and chocolate chips for a calorie-dense snack you can eat on the run.
Nut butters (such as peanut butter and almond butter) add fat and some protein to toast, crackers, fruit, and smoothies.
Just be sure to check the ingredients label for added sugars and other fillers, Tierney says. "Choose nut butters with only one or two ingredients: nuts and salt," she adds.
Adding high-calorie foods to your protein shake can help you down some extra calories between meals.
Loading up on refined carbs like cookies and crackers isn't the best way to boost your caloric intake, but adding more complex carbs can be a healthy way to gain weight.
Nutrient-rich carbohydrates — like fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains — can help to fuel the strength-training workouts your body needs to gain muscle mass.