On Your Health

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Gaining Weight the Healthy Way

While it seems most people are trying to lose weight, there are those who want to gain weight for a variety of reasons. Maybe they just want to bulk up for bodybuilding or athletic performance.

But it’s not just athletes or bodybuilders who can benefit from gaining weight. Your physician may recommend gaining weight if you are consistently underweight. Being underweight is defined as having a body mass index (BMI) below 18.5, which is generally less than the body mass needed to sustain optimal health.

Several medical conditions can lead to a person being underweight, and being underweight can have health risks, including death. Underweight adults actually have a higher risk of death than those who are overweight, according to a meta-analysis published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health in 2014. By looking at the results of 51 studies overall, the authors found that low-BMI people were 1.8 times more likely to die than those with a normal BMI. By contrast, obese patients (those with a BMI between 30 and 34.9) face a 1.2 greater risk for dying than normal-size patients. Severely obese patients — those with a BMI of 35 or more — faced a 1.3 times greater risk.

Like losing weight though, gaining weight can be a struggle for many people. Gaining weight in a healthy manner is even more important to ensure overall health and muscle development.

"Having low muscle mass can lead to loss of independence if body weight drops so low that it becomes difficult to engage in activities of daily living," says Karen Massey, who is a registered licensed dietitian and community education coordinator at INTEGRIS Health. "Being significantly underweight can undermine bone health, reproductive health and impair immune function."

How not to gain weight

One mistake people make when trying to put on weight is overeating. "Understandably, it seems like it should work, but attempting to eat huge portions at one time often backfires," says Massey. "Most people will find it easier to gain weight if they add calorie-dense snacks to their routine."

You should strive to include foods from each food group in your daily diet. To add pounds, it’s also helpful to specifically include foods within a food group that provides more calories per serving. For example, potatoes have more calories than broccoli, but both are in the vegetable group. Another sneaky trick is to capitalize on healthy oils. For instance, a tablespoon of olive oil is 120 calories. 

"It’s okay to be liberal with the salad dressing when you’re striving to increase calories without increasing volume," Massey says. "A handful of nuts contributes 160-190 high-nutrient calories. Guacamole can be another delightful way to slip calories in. Nibbling on cheese is easy, too." 

Variety is always important, so including foods from each food group not only keeps your taste buds happy but also helps your body capture all the nutrients that are necessary to build and repair tissue.

"Protein is especially crucial, but it’s still important to include variety. Eating some frivolous foods can help meet calorie needs for those who are struggling to eat enough volume," Massey says. "Putting too much emphasis on protein foods can have the unintended consequence of inhibiting appetite."

High-protein foods that are good for developing muscle mass and gaining weight include meats, dairy, fish, eggs, nuts, legumes and protein supplements like whey protein.

Ways to gain healthy weight

Many people struggling to put on weight find tips and tricks that help them on their journey. One of those tips is to not judge yourself.

"Keeping a food journal may help, but I’d be guarded about attempting to ‘police’ or ‘judge’ someone who is already apprehensive," Massey says. "Gaining weight can be as stressful for an underweight person as losing weight is for an overweight person. Strive to keep mealtimes peaceful, enjoyable and stress-free."

Exercise regimens should also be based on individual goals, she adds. Exercise regimens to promote muscular hypertrophy will feature greater overloads (lifting) while muscular endurance will target continuous movement (cardio). 

"Still, the best approach is one that is tailored around individual goals," she says. "You need patience. Every person is unique. Some people tend to gain weight and muscle more readily than those with lanky builds. Age matters, too. People can gain muscle mass at all ages but gaining muscle in older years may take longer."

Try these tips to fit in nutritious foods for weight gain

Need more tips? We’ve got you covered! Here are additional ways to take in more nutritious calories to help you gain weight.

  • Snack more often. Try high-calorie and nutritious snacks like nuts, guacamole, peanut butter, avocados, whole grains and dried fruit.
  • Drink whole milk. In addition to getting in more protein and calories, you’re also helping provide calcium for your bones.
  • Get enough sleep. Sleep is important for building muscle, especially after heavy weight lifting sessions.
  • Use a bigger plate at mealtime. Smaller plates cause people to subconsciously eat less.
  • Eat your protein first and vegetables last. Always try to eat the foods with the most calories and most protein first.
  • Take creatine. The supplement creatine monohydrate has been shown to help put on a few pounds in muscle weight.
  • Don't smoke. Smoking can lead to decreased appetite, but quitting smoking often leads to weight gain.

"Above all, be patient," says Massey. "Attempting too much too fast can lead to injury and frustration."


To find out the healthiest weight for you, read our blog post about that here. For more information about how to gain weight safely, talk with your INTEGRIS physician today.

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