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Everything You Need to Know About Healthy Weight Gain

couple preparing healthy meal together in a kitchen

Dropping belly fat may seem like the ideal scenario for beach season, but weight loss isn’t always a good thing. 

Causes of weight loss include underlying problems such as muscle loss, an overactive thyroid, or a condition like rheumatoid arthritis. But things most of us sometimes do — like not getting enough sleep or feeling constantly stressed out — can also make you lose weight the unhealthy way. 

If you’re concerned about sudden weight loss, please see your healthcare practitioner. Losing weight without trying, feeling anxiety or stress during weight loss,  headaches, chest pain, or using alcohol and drugs to cope are all potential signs of unhealthy weight loss — and red flags to seek help immediately. 

Stress and Weight Loss

You’ve probably heard about stress and weight gain — well, stress and weight loss go together too. True, some people eat their feelings when something like sleep or stress is out of balance, but others avoid food during these types of situation.

Chronic stress can contribute to or exacerbate these conditions and impair healthy weight gain. Stress can negatively affect your hormones, especially your fat-monitoring hormones. That stress can show up in many ways:

  • You have erratic patterns such as working through lunch. 
  • Your stress hormones can lower your desire to eat.
  • Your digestion suffers, so you get fewer nutrients from food.
  • You don’t sleep well

What Are the Health Impacts of Being Too Skinny?

Being “too skinny” can damage your body more than you might imagine. Scientists coined the term “thin-on-the-outside fat-on-the-inside” — or the acronym TOFI — to describe people who look skinny but carry “hidden” fat.  

Sure, obesity rates are at an all-time high — almost 40% in fact.  But so are TOFI people; as many as 45% of people in one survey fit this condition.  “Skinny fat” means you carry dangerous fat within your muscles, heart, and other vital organs — although you don’t outwardly appear overweight. This type of fat can also be extremely dangerous and lead to problems like diabetes.  

On the other spectrum, intelligent, healthy weight gain does not mean downing cheeseburgers with milkshakes. You will gain weight, but you won’t look or feel healthy. Even if you’re hitting the weights regularly and putting on muscle, the wrong diet can undo all that hard work. Those foods also increase inflammation, a key factor in nearly every disease on the planet.  They also crank up free radical production, which can damage your cells and create a condition called oxidative stress.  

Mental stress, inflammation, and oxidative stress all negatively affect your ability to gain weight the healthy way. Instead, aim to build weight as muscle, not fat, but also provide your body the right nutrients to build that muscle. 

How Can I Gain Weight? Start with Your Diet

Interestingly, healthy weight gain resembles what you would eat for weight loss. You’ll do that by giving your muscles, adrenals, and other organs a lot of love with the right nutrients. You should also increase  your caloric intake, with — and this is key — the right foods. 

You know the wrong ones. Namely, sugary, processed foods. They will make you gain weight. They’ll give you a sudden boost in energy. But eventually — sooner than later — they rob your energy and mood.  Here’s a nutrient-rich diet formula that will help you with healthy weight gain so you can feel — and look — your best.

  • Healthy fats: These are your nutrient-rich, calorie-dense foods. They include grass-fed beef and wild-caught fish, which are especially rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Nuts and seeds — along with their butters — are also good fats. So are avocados, olives, and coconuts. Eat unsweetened versions of these healthy fats liberally to gain healthy weight.
  • Protein: Protein supports muscle growth and all the many functions your body requires to gain weight healthily. Aim for about one to 1.7 gram of protein per pound of body weight. That number will depend on your age, sex, build, and other factors. You don’t need a ton of protein to meet your goals. If your goal is to weigh 180 pounds, that’s about eight ounces of protein during all three meals.
  • Carbohydrates: Here’s the slippery slope for weight gain. Pizza and cauliflower are both carbs, but the former can lead to unhealthy weight gain. The right carbs provide antioxidants to fight oxidative stress, nutrients to fight inflammation, and fibre to support gut health. Healthy carbs include tons of leafy and cruciferous veggies as well as low-sugar fruits like berries.
  • Fermented foods: Gut health often gets overlooked when you want to gain weight the healthy way. But gut health impacts nearly everything including your risk of disease. Kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, and — if you’re not dairy-intolerant — full-fat Greek yogurt are all fantastic sources of probiotics or good bacteria that support gut health and will ultimately help with (healthy) weight gain. 

7 More Ways to Gain Healthy Weight 

A healthy diet sometimes gets short shift for gaining weight correctly. But what you eat can make or break gaining weight smartly. Beyond food, these seven strategies can optimize healthy gain weight and help you reach your goals more quickly.

1. Write everything down. 

Monitoring your food intake, physical activity, and whatever else you find helpful to record will become your best ally to gain healthy weight. You can track your gains, troubleshoot if you’re not gaining (or gaining fat rather than muscle), and figure out what works and what doesn’t.

2. Keep a schedule. 

Eating consistently and eating enough are key factors to weight gain. You might skip lunch or not be in the mood to eat. As you fall into this new healthy weight gain pattern, you’ll want to establish better habits. One is to set a reminder about when to eat.

3. Lift weights. 

Weight resistance (lifting heavy weights) is your absolute best way to gain weight as muscle. You don’t need much to get those benefits. 15–20 minutes three or four times a week should work nicely. You can always adjust things like weight and number of reps as you start seeing results. Working with a personal trainer can help establish good form and technique, especially in the beginning.

4. Don’t overtrain. 

In the quest to gain weight as muscle, you might overcompensate and work out too much. Repeated bouts of intense exercise, especially without optimal recovery, can impact your gut, adrenals, and more. With high-intensity interval training, you only need to spend 20 minutes or so to get a full-body workout. Combine that with some weight resistance and you’ve got a stellar exercise combo to gain weight.

5. Manage stress. 

Feeling constantly stressed out increases inflammation levels and so much more, undoing your healthy gains. A certain amount of stress is normal —it can make you stronger and more resilient. But too much, just like over-exercise, is detrimental. Find something that helps you de-stress. That might mean yoga, meditation, deep breathing, or laughing with your best friend.

6. Get the right sleep. 

Good sleep helps your muscles recover,  helps hormones like insulin work better, and leaves you feeling focused and ready to tackle your day. Aim for about eight hours of sleep nightly. Quality matters too. Solid, uninterrupted sleep will leave you feeling like a rock star the next day. 

7. Get the right nutrients. 

A few key supplements can complement your diet and lifestyle modifications to gain weight. This should be your basic supplement regimen:

    • Multivitamin: A good multivitamin can help you get the nutrients you might not get from food
    • Omega-3 fatty acids: These fatty acids can lower exercise-inflammation that can show up as symptoms like muscle soreness. 
    • Probiotics: These live microorganisms feed your gut flora. You’ll get some probiotics from fermented foods, but to get the right amounts, to take a multi-strain supplement. 
    • Magnesium. This undervalued mineral can benefit everyone. Up to 68% of us don’t get enough. Magnesium plays a role in over 300 enzyme systems. It can help your muscles relax, relieve cramping, and much more. 

Being too thin doesn’t feel good. It can affect your confidence and if you’re the wrong kind of thin — TOFI, you’re losing muscle, or you have an underlying condition that keeps you thin — it can have widespread health consequences.

These strategies provide a foolproof formula to gain weight intelligently. Patience is key here. I recommend working with a chiropractor or trained nutritionist to find a unique plan that works for you, helps you troubleshoot problems along the way, and helps you exceed your goals. 

ouple preparing healthy meal together in a kitchen

Dr. B.J. Hardick

About Dr. B.J. Hardick

Raised in a holistic family, Dr. B.J. Hardick is a Doctor of Chiropractic, organic foodie and fanatic for green living and earthly sustainability. He has spent the majority of his life working in natural health care. In 2009, he authored his first book, Maximized Living Nutrition Plans. In 2018, he authored his second book, Align Your Health. An energizing and passionate speaker, Dr. Hardick shares his lifestyle methods to numerous professional and public audiences every year in the United States and Canada. He is known for his articles, recipes and contributions on MindBodyGreen.com, FoodMatters.com, MaxLiving.com, and his own site, DrHardick.com. In his spare time, he invests his keen interest in sustainable living into urban development in his hometown of London, Ontario. Learn More