When it comes to weight, there are plenty of articles on how to shed unwanted pounds. In fact, a Google search using "lose weight" delivers more than 51 million results. The results for gaining weight aren't nearly as lengthy, even though adding size can be just as challenging as losing it for some people.
Some opt for the so-called "dirty bulk," health consequences like heart disease and type 2 diabetes be damned. But there are smarter approaches, says nutritionist Joy Dubost, RD.
"Gaining weight, much like losing weight, is about more than the number on the scale," she says. "How you get there is as important as hitting your goal."
Focus on Quality
It's tempting to go for quantity over quality when trying to increase weight, but that can leave you feeling bloated and unmotivated. Instead, look for nutrient-dense foods like nuts and avocados to add at meals and snacks rather than filling your day with empty calories. You can pump up the caloric content of meals with sauces, oils, toppings, and milk or milk powder, but opt for healthy choices.
Eat More Often
Although some people find that it helps to increase portion sizes, others may find that trying to eat too much in one sitting leads to an uncomfortable fullness. If that's the case, try eating smaller meals and snacks throughout the day, instead of sticking to three meals.
Kim Hoban, RDN, recommends keeping track of caloric intake, but also knowing what your calorie needs are, so you can spread them out throughout the day. Try a calorie calculator that gives you an indication of how much you'd need to eat to gain weight.
Specify Your Goals
Just like saying "I want to lose weight" often leads to disappointment—as do all vague goals with no roadmap—simply saying "I want to gain weight" is ineffective. You should answer the question of why you're choosing to follow this path. Did a health professional tell you that you're underweight? Are you attempting to build more muscle and feel that you need the extra bulk to achieve that? In either case, think about what your ideal weight should be for your goals. Having a specific goal will help you track progress more easily.
When setting goals, make sure they're measurable. That means you can use the scale and measurements, but also performance-based goals. That might be as simple as the number of push-ups or pull-ups you can do. Although it might be tempting to aim high, try to keep goals achievable. Setting lofty goals can often lead to frustration, and that's a motivation killer.
"Create a series of smaller goals that you can reach as you progress," Hoban says.
For instance, think about what you can do this week—what number on the scale you want to reach, or what performance goals you can hit. Challenge yourself, but don't overreach. After a couple weeks, you should be getting the hang of understanding your edge and how to push past it.
Consider Your Genetics
Genetics play a major role in musculature and body composition. That doesn't mean that you're tied to your family tree with no hope of breaking free—it just means that you might need to be more realistic about what you can achieve. A 2005 study tracked the 12-week progression of 585 male and female subjects, and results were all over the map. The worst responders lost 2 percent of their muscle and didn't gain any strength, while the best increased their muscle cross-sectional area by 59 percent and their 1-rep max by 250 percent!
"Cut yourself some slack if you're seeing a strong genetic component," Dubost says.
For example, if everyone in your family has super-skinny thighs, and you do, too, it's possible there's little you can do to overcome that. Instead, embrace that genetic legacy and build muscle to the degree that you can.
Give Yourself Time
One of the most common weight-gain missteps that Hoban sees is when athletes set an accelerated timeframe to reach a goal weight. Like any kind of effort, weight gain is best done slowly and steadily, especially if you're trying to do it in a healthy manner. In short, a dirty bulk of high-calorie food isn't the way to go.
By setting a specific goal, understanding your "why," giving yourself time to get there, and focusing on nutrient- and calorie-dense foods, you'll have a much better chance of moving that needle on your weight scale.
- Hubal, M. J., Gordish-Dressman, H. E. A. T. H. E. R., Thompson, P. D., Price, T. B., Hoffman, E. P., Angelopoulos, T. J., ... & Zoeller, R. F. (2005). Variability in muscle size and strength gain after unilateral resistance training. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 37(6), 964-972.