Updated: Nov 26, 2020
There’s always a lot of information and emphasis on losing weight but hardly any on how to gain weight in a healthy manner. Weight gain can be as difficult as losing weight for some people.
I want to emphasise that a healthy weight will be different for every person. If you’re unsure with what that means for you, it’s ideal to talk to your GP or qualified health practitioner. As what works for others might not necessarily work for you. Therefore it’s essential to do what is right for your own body and what keeps you nourished, happy and healthy.
Being slightly underweight is usually not associated with problems, but being significantly underweight is associated with issues such as weak immune function and just a general lack of resilience and ability to thrive. In significantly underweight women, they may also develop amenorrhea, where they stop having a period. They can develop infertility and a number of hormonal issues.
This article does not discuss eating disorders as this is an extraordinarily complex topic.
Finding The Root Causes
Before we get into the specifics and strategies of how to gain weight in a healthy way, it’s important to discuss why someone might be having trouble gaining weight in the first place.
Understanding the root cause will help us determine the WHY so we can work on the HOW.
Below are a few potential causes:
Genetic factors: some people are just born with a faster metabolism - basal metabolic rate - than others (4).
Gut issues: People who have celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity or lactose intolerance, and eat these foods while not being aware they are intolerant to them, can cause inflammation in the gut. The inflammatory response caused undermines the body’s ability to absorb nutrients by damaging intestinal cells that are involved in nutrient absorption. When nutrients aren’t absorbed, they are not available to the body to support health and growth: malnutrition, weight loss, and/or slowed growth can result. (2, 3)
Hyperthyroidism: It has been appreciated for a very long time that there is a complex relationship between thyroid disease, body weight and metabolism (1).
Other hormones: There are many other hormones (besides thyroid hormone), proteins, and other chemicals that are very important for controlling energy expenditure, food intake, and body weight. Because all these substances interact on both the brain centres that regulate energy expenditure and tissues throughout the body that control energy expenditure and energy intake.
Inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD) i.e. Crohn’s disease: Weight loss is very common in people with IBD. Weight loss is an indication of malnutrition caused by not getting enough calories to meet your needs due to poor appetite, malabsorption, and nutrient losses due to diarrhoea or intestinal bleeding.
If you feel that you have any of the above you might really benefit from working with a doctor, registered nutritional therapist or dietician so they perform tests and can help tailor the diet and lifestyle to fit your needs.
Strategies to Gain Weight in a Healthy Manner
1. Small and frequent
Try eating smaller meals, more often. Spread it out over the course of a day to avoid getting too full. Aim for a meal every 2-3 hours. Even schedule a reminder on your phone or laptop if you have trouble remembering.
Tip! Try a bite - sometimes your appetite isn't up for it, but you'd be surprised how even taking a few bites of something can get it going and make you realise you were hungrier than you thought
2. Increase your food intake
This one seems fairly straightforward: eating more calories than you are expending can steer you towards gaining weight, and this doesn't necessarily mean having to add unreasonable amounts of food to your regular diet. For example, adding an extra 500-750 calories a day can result in a slow and steady gain, which is ideal. (If you’ve been reading the blog for a while now, you’ll know that we don’t promote calorie counting, but for demonstration purposes, we have mentioned it).
3. Consume nutrient-dense foods
Maximising on nutrient density should be the primary goal if you want to gain weight in a healthy way. Below are some examples of high nutrient-dense foods.
Nuts & Seeds: as they include both protein and healthy fats all in one. Aim for the unsalted versions. Don’t forget about nut and seed butters, like peanut butter, almond butter, and tahini are wonderfully nutrient-dense ingredients that can be added to almost any meal or snack.
Avocados: these are one of the few produce items that are calorically dense. You can add these to the side of any savoury dish, or use their creaminess to your advantage in a dessert.
Granola: you can pretty much add granola to anything, and the beauty of making it at home is that you can really pack those nuts, seeds and dried fruits in there.
Fats & Oils: these are easy nutrient-dense foods you can add while cooking or baking; it can be added to a sauce or salad dressing, and you can add a little drizzle of olive oil to a dish just before serving.
4. Use drinks to up your intake
One easy way to add density to your meals is through your drink choices. Here are some ways to up your intake through fluids:
Try opting for drinks that are both hydrating and offer some nutrient density. Such as including smoothies that have avocados and bananas.
Aim to drink after meals instead of before or during so that you don't feel as full as quickly.
Sleep changes your hormone balance and your body's ability to recover. This changes how your body responds to nutrients, exercise, and stress.
6. Change your environment and your systems
Willpower and motivation are important, however, changing your environment and systems is more sustainable in the long run. Willpower is very limited and can sometimes be unreliable Instead, built an environment, a system, and a support network that helps you get to your goals.
7. Take action. But do ONE small thing at a time
It might feel difficult to increase the amount of food you eat at first. It’s important to start slow and to incorporate only one of the suggestions above each day and choose the ones that you know are within your abilities and that you will stick to. Keep it up for a few days before adding another one.
Still need help?
If you are unable to gain weight adequately from food and drink alone, consider seeking professional help from your doctor, qualified nutritionist or dietitian that can help address your individual concerns and follow up with you on your ongoing progress.
1) Ranran Xu, Fei Huang and Qingquan Liu. (2019). Thyroid function, body mass index, and metabolic risk markers in euthyroid adults: a cohort study. BMC Endocr Disord. 19: 58.
2) Wierdsma, N. J., van Bokhorst-de van der Schueren, M. A., Berkenpas, M., Mulder, C. J., & van Bodegraven, A. A. (2013). Vitamin and mineral deficiencies are highly prevalent in newly diagnosed celiac disease patients. Nutrients, 5(10), 3975–3992.
3) Bul, V., Sleesman, B., & Boulay, B. (2016). Celiac Disease Presenting as Profound Diarrhea and Weight Loss - A Celiac Crisis. The American journal of case reports, 17, 559–561.
4) Fernando Riveros-McKay, Vanisha Mistry, Rebecca Bounds, Audrey Hendricks, Julia M. Keogh, Hannah Thomas, Elana Henning et al. Genetic architecture of human thinness compared to severe obesity. PLOS Genetics, 2019; 15 (1).