The Best Foods to Gain Weight
The Best Foods to Gain Weight was written by dietetics student Ashley Gelhaus, ACSM-CPT & reviewed/edited by Katie Dodd, MS, RDN, CSG, LD, FAND
Many people need to gain weight for a variety of reasons. A common belief is that gaining weight is unhealthy because societal norms promote weight loss, but never weight gain. However, there are healthy ways to gain weight, and this article will teach you how.
Who Needs to Gain Weight?
As we age, our appetites tend to decrease. Over time, this can lead to poor intake and eventual weight loss. Most doctors will recommend that such individuals gain the weight back in order to return to a stable, healthy weight. This will keep you healthier in the long run.
Older adults often experience reduced appetite. There are a variety of reasons why this happens. Certain medications cause reduced appetite. Aging, illness, and certain medical conditions (and treatments) can also contribute to poor appetite. When someone lacks an appetite, they are less likely to eat enough food to meet their needs.
It’s okay to eat a smaller volume of food, but one should compensate for the lost volume with healthy foods that pack in the calories. Otherwise, they may be susceptible to further issues such as unintentional weight loss.
Unintentional Weight Loss
Unintentional weight loss is defined as an unwanted or unplanned decrease in weight. In general, it is not recommended that older adults lose weight, so such a change is cause for concern.
When an older adult has lost some weight, focus should be on stopping the loss and regaining that weight if possible. This can be done quite easily with a few small diet changes featuring the best foods to gain weight.
Any individual who is underweight is at a greater risk for health complications compared to someone who is at a healthy weight.
Clinically, an older adult with a BMI of 23 or less is considered underweight. If you’re not familiar with BMI standards for older adults , be sure to check out our article on BMI in the Elderly.
Of note, some individuals are naturally thin. Those who have been at a low weight for the duration of their life should focus on weight stability.
Health Concerns of a Reduced Appetite, Weight Loss, and Being Underweight
A reduced appetite, weight loss, and being underweight can all lead to some serious health concerns. This is why it is so important to stop such issues right in their tracks.
Malnutrition is not getting enough of one or more nutrients to meet your individual needs. It is often seen in people who are not eating enough calories and/or protein.
As you lose your appetite, it becomes more difficult to meet your daily needs with your regular diet. You may need to make some modifications to pack in those missing nutrients.
Ultimately, we want to prevent muscle wasting, during which your body breaks down your muscles to provide the energy it needs.
Some older adults may become deficient in one or more vitamins, particularly if their intake is poor. Each and every vitamin plays a unique but vital role in our daily functioning. Thus, a deficiency in one vitamin may appear very different from a deficiency in another.
For example, a vitamin B12 deficiency may impact your mental function. On the other hand, a vitamin C deficiency would inhibit wound healing. Two different vitamins, two very different (but important) functions.
Check out this article on the 7 Key Nutrients for Senior Nutrition.
Osteoporosis is a common condition which requires more calcium and/or vitamin D. If you aren’t getting enough calcium in your diet, your bones can become porous and more delicate. This can make you more susceptible to broken bones.
Osteoporosis is a serious concern for older adults because they are at a greater risk for falls, and therefore they may be more likely to break a bone. We want our elderly loved ones to stay out of the hospital, so keeping their bones strong is super important.
How to Gain Weight
Despite all the talk you hear in the media, gaining weight is not always bad! In fact, many older adults could benefit from gaining a little more weight. It can be done in a healthy way, and it can reduce risks for more serious health concerns down the road. Here are some ways you can start gaining weight.
Eat More Often and Regularly
Sometimes you can forget to eat, especially if you do not have a set routine. Plan your meals throughout the days of the week. Eat at a consistent time each day. Having a regular meal schedule will help you increase your intake by avoiding skipped meals.
If you find that your appetite is not very big, try eating smaller, more frequent meals. Instead of the typical breakfast-lunch-dinner schedule, have 4 to 6 small meals throughout the day.
Add Calorie Boosters
Sometimes it’s too difficult to increase the volume of food that you’re eating each day. Or perhaps eating 6 times a day still isn’t quite enough to get that weight back up.
Instead of focusing on how much food you are eating, focus on what kinds of food you are eating. “Calorie boosters” are extremely helpful for weight gain.
Calorie boosters are foods that are energy dense, meaning they have a ton of energy (calories) in a small volume. For example, a ½ cup of chicken will provide much more calories than ½ cup of spinach, even though they have the same volume.
Many calorie boosters can even be hidden in meals or snacks that you eat on a regular basis. This means you get to enjoy better nutrition while still eating your favorite meals.
Read the nutrition facts labels to find high calorie foods or choose some of the high calorie foods referenced in this article.
Weight Gain Food List
A weight gain food list is a helpful to provide ideas on different foods that will stop unintended weight loss and even allow you to gain weight. The list can be personalized to feature healthy options that appeal to your unique tastes. You can also grab a free weight gaining meal plan here.
Guide for Choosing Calorie Boosters
When you are creating a weight gain food list or meal plan, you will want to pick out foods that will pack in the energy. These calorie boosters should be high in fat and/or protein.
When choosing foods that are high in fat, it is best to choose options that are minimally processed. Think of nuts, olive oil, and eggs. In addition to helping you gain weight, these healthy calorie boosters will provide added benefits from their vitamins and minerals.
For protein, follow a similar guideline- choose foods that are processed very little. Milk, yogurt, and chicken are three great foods that pack in the protein alongside other healthy nutrients.
However, overall focus should be on quality of life and the foods an older adult wants to eat. So even if processed foods is all they can eat, it is OK.
Tips for Gaining Weight
So now you understand the importance of gaining weight, it’s time to apply this information. To make it easier, here are a few tips for gaining weight.
Create a Weight Gain Food List
A good to gaining weight is making your own personalized weight gain food list. Figure out what high calorie foods you want to eat and can incorporate into your meals. Using the guidelines above, identify a set of high-calorie foods that appeal to your tastes.
Whether you write it or type it, design your list so that it is easy to reference. It may help to organize your list by category of food (i.e. dairy, meat, vegetables) or by where the foods are found in your kitchen (i.e. pantry, fridge, freezer).
Having a compact, organized list will help you think of those calorie boosters that you can add in while you are cooking.
Consistency is key when you are struggling to gain weight. Just like it takes time to lose weight, it can take some time to gain weight as well.
Focus on little changes and eating high calorie foods throughout the day. Make sure the foods you are selecting are foods that appeal to you. With poor appetite it can be harder to eat, so make sure you are selecting tasty options!
Add Food Item(s) To Each Meal and Snack
A great way to maintain that consistency is by adding one or more high calorie food items from your list to every meal or snack you eat. Over time, eating these high calorie foods will become a habit. Then you will be back to a healthy weight in no time!
Food Group: Fats
Fats are an important component of any diet. They support healthy skin and a sharp mind. Fats are also an excellent source of calories.
Why Choose Fats for Weight Gain?
Fats are more calorie dense than protein or carbohydrates (sugars and starches). This means that in a small volume, you can still get a large amount of calories. If you are trying to gain weight but you’re also struggling with a limited appetite, fats will help you get better results while still not having to eat a bunch of food.
Best Foods to Gain Weight: Fats
There are many foods high in healthy fats. Be sure to read food labels for fat content in foods. Monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fats are heart healthy.
- Nuts (walnuts, almonds, peanuts)
- Peanut butter
- Oils (olive, avocado, canola)
Food Group: Milk and Alternatives
Milk is high in protein, and it can also be high in fat. Thus, it is high in calories and can help you gain weight. Many people suffer from digestive issues when they eat dairy products. For those who struggle with this, there are plenty of milk alternatives that can be just as helpful with weight gain.
Why Choose Milk and Alternatives for Weight Gain?
Milk, yogurt, cheese, and their non-dairy alternatives are all excellent foods for weight gain. They are delicious when eaten on their own, but they can also be easily added into larger snacks or meals.
For example, you can add ½ cup yogurt and 1 cup whole milk in your breakfast smoothie. That alone provides well over 200 calories!
Best Foods to Gain Weight: Milk and Alternatives
Read the nutrition facts label for calorie content in milk and dairy products. Check out our article on high calorie drinks for additional information.
- Whole milk
- Powdered milk
- Yogurt (full fat or Greek yogurt)
- Milk alternatives (soymilk, oat milk)
Food Group: Meat and Protein
Meat and/or plant-based proteins should be in just about every meal you eat when you are trying to gain weight. This is because protein (along with resistance exercise) preserves your muscle mass. If you don’t eat enough protein, then your body starts to break down your existing muscle for energy.
Everyone should preserve their muscle mass, but it is especially important for those in the geriatric population.
Why Choose Meat and Protein Choices for Weight Gain?
Think about your last dinner. Did it have some kind of meat? Or perhaps a plant-based protein? These foods are common in just about every meal you eat, so they can be easy to incorporate into a diet for weight gain.
Most meats are great choices for weight gain because they are mostly protein, but they also have a little bit of fat. Thus, they are packed with energy to keep you on track towards gaining weight.
If you don’t eat meat, there are plenty of other high calorie, high protein vegan foods that will help with weight gain as well. These include tofu, beans, and nuts/seeds.
Best Foods to Gain Weight: Meat and Protein
There are a variety of meat and protein foods to choose from based on personal preference.
- Beef and pork
- Poultry (chicken, turkey, duck)
- Beans and lentils
- Nuts (almonds, walnuts, peanuts, pistachios)
- Seeds (pumpkin, sunflower, chia, flax)
Food Group: Fruits and Vegetables
Fruits and vegetables are an important part of a balanced diet. Even though they are not as calorie packed as the other foods mentioned, they still provide essential nutrients for a healthy lifestyle.
Why Choose Fruits and Vegetables for Weight Gain?
Fruits and vegetables contain a wide array of vitamins and minerals that help your body process other nutrients for energy. There are also a few extra special fruits and vegetables that are high in calories and perfect for weight gain.
Best Foods to Gain Weight: Fruits and Vegetables
Many fruits and veggies are lower in calories, but here are some good higher calorie options:
- Dried fruit
- Potatoes and sweet potatoes
- Green peas
Be sure to check out our article on high calorie smoothies for weight gain. It includes ideas on how to incorporate fruits and vegetables into smoothies for a tasty high calorie treat!
Food group: Grains
Grains are highly versatile meal components. They add substance to your plate. They can also help with weight gain.
Why Choose Grains for Weight Gain?
Grains contain a mixture of protein and carbohydrates, both of which will provide a moderate amount of calories. Grains also contain fiber, which is beneficial to your gut. Specifically, it keeps your bowel movements regular. This may not directly impact your weight gain, but it will keep you healthier overall.
Note that for some people too much fiber can fill them up, making it more difficult to finish a meal. Adequate fiber is so important, but experiment with types and amounts of these foods that work best for you.
Best Foods to Gain Weight: Grains
There are many grain varieties to choose from. Adding butter or olive oil when cooking or after cooking will add additional calories.
- Brown rice
- Wild rice
- Whole grain pasta
Ways to Use Weight Gain Foods
Once you build your weight gain food list, there are endless ways to mix and match those foods. To start off easy, try finding one or two ways to add a calorie booster into a food you already eat. Whether you have a smoothie for breakfast or spaghetti for dinner, there is surely a way for you to sneak in some extra calories for weight gain.
Use Higher Fat Milk and Alternative for Smoothies
When you have a diminished appetite, it can be easier to sip on something rather than eat a full plate of food. Smoothies are a great option for a sippable meal that still packs in the calories.
Use whole milk, which is high in fat, to make your next smoothie. This will increase your calorie intake without increasing the volume you need to consume.
Here are some great tips on creating the perfect weight gain smoothie.
Add Fats to Grain Dishes
Grain dishes are great mediums for the addition of fats. Drizzling some olive oil over your pasta can enhance the flavor and give you a few extra calories. Mixing in some toasted nuts to your rice pilaf can add a nice crunch while also boosting that protein content. Butter on your rice or or quinoa is a tasty edition.
The options are endless!
Add Protein Choices to Fruit
Fruit is a great snack choice. But you can make it even better by adding a protein alongside it. For example, peanut butter pairs well with apples or bananas. You can also try making a little platter of fruit slices, nuts, and cheese.
Best Foods to Gain Weight Conclusion
It can be discouraging to lose weight, especially when you don’t feel like you can eat enough to stop the weight loss. Instead of trying to eat more, you can find success through eating smarter. Focus on incorporating foods high calories into your daily mealtimes.
Best of luck!
(Feel free to use this infographic; please link back to this post and give credit to The Geriatric Dietitian!)