When it comes to weight gain, it can be difficult to find information on how to do so in a healthy and sustainable way. There is so much focus on “weight loss” with little attention focused on strategies to support weight gain.
The first thing to consider is the possible underlying cause. You need to uncover the possible reason for why you are underweight and struggling to reach a healthy weight. Perhaps you are deficient in a certain nutrient? Do you have a low appetite? A complicated relationship with food and have taken dieting too far? Afraid of eating? Afraid of gaining weight? Or perhaps you have a medical condition that makes weight gain difficult.
All of the above scenarios must be taken seriously. It is my advice that you seek professional help from a doctor and nutritionist to help you uncover the reason behind your weight loss/inability to gain weight. If you are dealing with anorexia or bulimia you most definitely need professional advice from a psychologist or therapist – this blog is simply not enough.
When it comes to healthy weight gain, it’s important to focus on nutrients, not calories or counting of any sort. This includes calories, macros or the number on the scale. This can add anxiety to the situation. The goal is to gain weight by eating wholesome, nutritious foods.
Here are my top tips for healthy weight gain:
The macronutrient to focus on is healthy fats
Out of the three macronutrients (protein, fat and carbohydrates), fat is the most energy dense and is therefore the most appropriate nutrient to increase daily to assist with weight gain. Fatsare so nourishing for our hormones, brain function and contain anti-inflammatory properties. When it comes to fat we want to focus on incorporating unsaturated fat sources such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Here are some examples to include with your meals: fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines), eggs, a handful of nuts (walnuts, almonds, cashews, Brazil nuts, macadamias), seeds (flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds), avocado and extra virgin olive oil.
Ways you can incorporate these into your meals
- Breakfast: Oats with flax/chia seeds and some nut butter of choice with Greek yoghurt
- Lunch: An omelette with avocado and some sweet potato/pumpkin or bread of choice
- Dinner: A piece of fish crusted in crushed almonds/pistachios drizzled in olive oil with greens and quinoa/brown rice.
Avoid ‘fat free’ and ‘low fat’ products
Contrary to popular belief, these are not always the heathiest options, even if your goal is to lose weight. They are often either laden with inflammatory refined sugars or artificial sweeteners that can cause unpleasant digestive symptoms. Opt for ‘whole’ or ‘full fat’ alternatives.
Complex carbohydrates and protein
The above meal examples focus on healthy fats while still incorporating the other essential macronutrients. Protein is essential for the growth and maintenance of muscles and carbohydrates to give us energy. Your body needs grains and starchy vegetables to thrive. Ensure each meal has a serving of any of the following: brown rice, barley, quinoa, rye/multi-grain bread, oats, sweet potato and pumpkin.If you are significantly under-weight you may need to double the serving, this is why we always suggest working with a practitioner, as how much you need is so individual. In addition to this, add a serve of a good quality animal (lean red meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy) or plant-based protein (beans, lentils, chickpeas, tempeh, nuts and seeds) to every meal. Increasing protein can help to create a positive energy balance while also getting in lots of nutrients such as iron, zinc, Vitamin B12 and iodine.
Snack in between meals
This helps to balance blood sugar levels and give you energy till your next meal. Enjoy peanut/almond butter smeared on banana/apple/pear, Greek yoghurt with a handful of berries/nuts, a DIY trail mix, bliss balls, 2 boiled eggs or veggie sticks and wholegrain crackers dipped in hummus/tahini/mashed avocado.
Smoothies are an easy way to jam pack your meal full of nutrients and healthy fats. Focus on ingredients such as bananas, dates, coconut, protein powder, berries and cinnamon. Juices are another convenient way to get some extra serves of fruits and veggies. Head to the Drinks & Smoothies section for lots of simple recipes.
Tone the exercise down a notch
Enjoy more restorative exercises that can help with stress release. Practice yoga, Pilates, go for a walk or enjoy gentle swimming like breast stroke. Ensure you’re taking 2-3 rest days a week. This is so important to allow your body to come back to a healthy weight and time for your muscles to repair. Over exercising can be counterproductive. Limit running, spin or other high intensity movements until you reach your healthy weight.
Work with a nutritionist and don’t be afraid to seek extra support
As much as you can take the above recommendations on board, it’s always best to work with a trusted health practitioner. They’ll have access to your full case history and can provide you with advice to suit your personal needs. This is a huge journey and can be tough. You don’t have to do it alone. Speak to a trusted friend, family member or a therapist.
- Marzola E, Nasser J, Hashim S, Shih P, Kaye W. Nutritional rehabilitation in anorexia nervosa: review of the literature and implications for treatment. BMC Psychiatry. 2013;13(1).
- Are you underweight? – Dietitians Association of Australia [Internet]. Daa.asn.au. 2019
- National Health and Medical Research Council 2015, Nutrient Reference Values: Fats: Total fat and fatty acids, https://www.nrv.gov.au/nutrients/fats