About two-thirds of the American population is overweight or obese, but there's also a subset of the population who are underweight — and that's also a problem.
"The reality is, many patients — especially older adults and people with cancer — struggle to gain weight and keep it on," says Amy Carion,Amy Carion, a registered dietitian nutritionist with Henry Ford Cancer. "Not only does being underweight sometimes lead to malnourishment, it can also increase your risk of infection and negatively affect treatment outcomes for people who have chronic conditions."
How To Gain Weight in a Healthy Way
Intentional weight change, whether losing or gaining, isn't easy. Over time, your body develops a sort of "set point" for weight and that can be difficult to change. Whether you’re underweight because of a health condition or a speedy metabolism, or you want to build muscle weight, strategies for healthy weight gain are mostly the same:
- Increase your calorie intake: An athlete who wants to gain muscle weight should increase calories strategically. Eat plenty of high-calorie foods, such as protein-rich meats, healthy fats and whole grains. Battling cancer or frailty due to aging? Eat anything you like. Cake, cookies, milkshakes, they're all fair game. The goal is only to consume more calories.
- Eat more frequently: Eating more often will help you consume more calories. If you get full easily, consider eating 5 to 7 meals each day instead of the standard 3.
- Sneak in calories: Add extras to your meals to increase calories. Top oatmeal, yogurt and salads with nuts. Sprinkle cheese into soups, stews and scrambled eggs. Add ground flaxseed to protein shakes and smoothies. You might even eat a spoonful of peanut butter at every meal.
- Try liquids: Have difficulty chewing? Suffering from fatigue? Don't want to cook? Liquid calories in the form of nutrient-rich shakes can be a great option. A bonus: These high-calorie shakes are rich in nutrients but less filling than, say, an apple. "The stomach doesn't sense calories, it senses volume," Carion says.
- Sip fluids between meals: Instead of drinking calorie-free beverages with meals, sip throughout the day so you'll eat more come mealtime. "You don't want to be so full and bloated so you don't have room for anything else," Carion says. Plus, if you sip high-calorie beverages, you'll get additional calories, protein, carbs and fat without having to think too much about it.
- Load up on fats: If you're healthy but underweight, or an athlete who wants to gain muscle mass, one of the best ways to gain weight is to fill up on healthy fats, such as nuts and nut butters, avocados and fatty fish like salmon.
If you're battling a chronic illness or you're suffering from age-related low appetite, try all of the above plus full-fat dairy products, such as cream cheese, sour cream, heavy whipping cream and full-fat ice cream.
- Keep exercising: Exercise is important for overall health and well-being. It can also help you gain weight (strength training is especially beneficial). A bonus: Regular exercise may also increase your appetite.
You’ve Gained Weight: Now What?
Before you begin a program or start to work on weight gain, it's important to know where you stand. "Underweight" is defined as a body mass index (BMI) below 18.5. Your BMI is your weight in kilograms divided by your height in meters squared. (Just keep in mind that BMI doesn't account for muscle mass.)
When it's time to start, try a slow and steady approach. "Increase the calories you're consuming gradually," Carion suggests. "Start with an increase of 100 calories per day for a few days and then build up to 500 additional calories daily."
Most important, if you suffer from unexplained weight loss, or can't seem to gain weight despite increasing your calorie intake, see your physician. Several medical conditions can lead to unhealthy weight loss. Your doctor can help rule out a serious health problem.
Amy Carion, RDN, is a registered dietitian nutritionist working for Henry Ford Cancer.