Being underweight can be just as frustrating as being overweight. For people who experience difficulty gaining weight, it can be confusing to figure out how to gain weight in a healthy way. If you’re wondering how to gain weight fast without harming your body, there are certain foods and exercises that will help you increase your daily calorie count with nutrient-dense foods and build muscle with strength training.
Just like following a weight loss program or diet, to gain weight fast you need to take a balanced approach, focusing on the foods you eat, how often you eat and what exercises you do to put on muscle. Adding calories from processed and refined foods isn’t going to help you to gain healthy weight — it will only lead to inflammation, low energy levels and other health issues. Instead, sticking to nutrient-dense foods that fuel your body and allow you to gain weight in a healthy manner is key.
Why People Would Want to Gain Weight
Although there’s plenty of information out there about the health risks of being overweight or obese, it’s important to note that there are also health risks associated with being underweight. Many times, being underweight is due to poor nutrition or unhealthy eating habits, but sometimes it can be downright difficult for a person to gain weight in a healthy way.
Technically, a body mass index (BMI) that’s less than 18.5 is considered underweight. Based on the BMI chart, an adult woman who is 5 feet, 5 inches (65 inches tall) should be between 114 and 144 pounds to be considered at a “normal” weight. An adult male who is 6 feet tall should be between 140–177 pounds to fall within the normal range. (1)
The most common health risks associated with being underweight include (2, 3):
- weakened immune system
- trouble fighting illness
- vitamin deficiencies
- development issues (mostly in children and teens)
- issues with fertility
- irregular periods and increased risk of amenorrhea
- bone loss
- kidney disease
- feeling tired or having low energy levels
- thinning hair and dry skin
In 2014, the Swiss National Cohort Study Group examined the long-term association between being underweight and mortality. Over 31,000 individuals between the ages of 25 and 74 participated in the study. Underweight individuals represented 3 percent of the total study population and 90 percent of those underweight were women. Researchers found that compared to those who were of normal weight, being underweight was associated with increased risk of death due to external causes, such as accidents and suicide.
The data suggests that being underweight not only increases your risk of injury, but impairs your survival after an accident. Research also indicates that there is an association between low BMI and depression and an increased risk of suicide. (4)
This is why it’s important to gain weight if you’re underweight. Read on to learn how to gain weight fast in a safe way.
How to Gain Weight Fast and Safely
Maybe you aren’t feeling your best and you want to gain weight to become a healthier person, or maybe you aren’t happy with the way you look and you want to build muscle — either way, there are some basic tips you can use to gain weight fast in a healthy manner. Below, I lay out how to gain weight fast for women and how to gain weight fast for men.
1. Add Nutrient-Dense Calories
When trying to increase your calorie intake, quality is actually more important than quantity. Turning to high-calorie junk or processed foods isn’t going to help you gain healthy weight. Instead, add nutrient-dense foods to your meals to increase your daily calorie intake and make you feel more energized. Adding nuts, seeds, raw cheese, and coconut or olive oil to your meals will add healthy calories while providing you with additional nutrients.
I’m not a huge fain of counting calories, as I think intuitive eating is a healthier approach, but if you’re trying to learn how to gain weight fast, here’s a quick rundown of how to estimate the amount of calories you need to consume. The exact amount of calories you need to eat every day to gain weight depends on your metabolism, age, gender and genetics, but the overall rule of thumb is that you need to eat more calories than you burn in a day. Now, the number of calories that your body needs to function on a daily basis is called your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE), which is usually higher in men than women because men have more muscle mass. (5)
Your TDEE is made up of your basal metabolic rate, which is the amount of calories that you burn when resting (from pumping blood, breathing, staying warm, etc.) and the number of calories you burn from physical exercise combined. To gain weight, you need to eat more than your TDEE. Use a TDEE tracker to estimate how many calories you burn in a day. Then, for those of you who are wondering how to gain weight fast for men, add about 250 additional calories to your day. As for how to gain weight fast for women, add about 125 additional calories per day. Start there and measure your progress for the first two weeks. You should be gaining muscle, not fat, so you don’t want to consume too many calories in one day.
2. Eat Five Meals a Day
If you’re confused about how to gain weight fast, one of the most basic tips I can give you is to eat more often. Two to three meals a day isn’t going to cut it — you really want to aim for about five meals a day. These meals should include high-quality protein, complex carbs (instead of refined carbohydrates) and healthy fats.
Eating smaller meals throughout the day instead of larger meals less frequently will be easier on your digestive system and won’t leave you feeling bloated and sluggish. Plus, you can consume more calories without feeling like you’re stuffing your face. It may seem like a lot of eating at first, but your body will get used to it over time and begin to feel hungry when these meal times approach. You can also have a smoothie with your meal. Liquids aren’t as filling, so this is a great way to add more calories to your meal. (6)
I also suggest that you eat a snack before bed. I’m sure you’ve heard that you shouldn’t eat too close to bedtime, but our bodies actually work hard to recover when we sleep, so giving it an extra boost of protein and carbohydrates can be beneficial if you want to gain weight.
3. Add Healthy Snacks
Having healthy snacks between meals will increase your daily calorie count and get you the protein and carbs you need to stay energized and gain weight. Some great high-protein snacks include trail mix, veggies and hummus, probiotic yogurt with seeds, nuts and berries, hard-boiled eggs, and gluten-free crackers with peanut or almond butter. Even choosing fruit as a snack has shown to be associated with low anxiety and emotional distress, along with improved cognitive function and energy levels. All of these factors can help you gain weight in a healthy way. (7)
Make everything you eat count; don’t go for empty calories when choosing your snacks. Instead, use this as a great opportunity to get more protein and healthy fats into your day.
4. Get Moving
You may think that you don’t need to exercise since you’re trying to gain weight and not lose it, but exercises like strength training, yoga and burst training will help you build muscle and gain healthy weight. To gain weight, you don’t want to put on fat that comes with health risks like high triglycerides and LDL cholesterol, high blood pressure, and insulin resistance. The best way to gain weight fast is to focus on gaining muscle, which requires physical activity at least five times per week. (8)
How to Gain Weight Fast: What Foods to Eat and Avoid
If you want to gain weight and muscle naturally, you need to make some changes to your diet. Drop the foods that don’t supply the nutrients you need to maintain proper hormone balance, bodily functions, energy levels and muscle growth. Focus on getting the healthiest foods that supply your macronutrients: fats, protein and carbohydrates.
The foods that you want to eat to gain weight fast include:
- Healthy fats: There are two types of healthy fats that will help you gain weight and muscle in a healthy manner. Omega-9 fatty acids are a type of unsaturated fats that are found in vegetables and animal fats. Omega-9 benefits include increased physical activity and the availability of more energy. Some of the best omega-9 sources include avocados, olive oil, almonds and macadamia nuts. Short-chain fatty acids from ghee, grass-fed butter and coconut oil will help you gain weight and muscle fast, and they aren’t stored in your body as fat. Omega-3 foods are also important, so eat plenty of egg yolks, walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseeds and wild-caught salmon.
- Clean protein: When it comes to eating protein to gain healthy weight, take your body weight and eat that many grams of protein per day. So if you weigh 160 pounds, you want to eat about 160 grams of protein per day. Get these grams of protein from healthy sources, like grass-fed beef, wild-caught salmon, organic chicken and turkey, and whole eggs. High-quality protein powders can also help you meet your daily protein goals. I recommend using a high-quality whey protein or bone broth protein powder. (9, 10)
- Carbohydrates: To gain weight fast, I recommend you consume more gluten-free carbohydrates by adding them as sides to your meals or as snacks in between meals. Research shows that combining carbs with protein produces a greater anabolic response than eating protein alone. Some great sources of carbohydrates include root vegetables that serve as unadulterated sources of complex carbohydrates and important nutrients. Starchy vegetables like yams, russet or Yukon potatoes, and sweet potatoes provide fiber, nutrients and complex carbs without too much sugar. Gluten-free grains are also great options because they could prevent bloating and boost energy levels. Some of the best choices include quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, brown rice and non-GMO polenta. Fruit also serves as a great source of carbohydrates. Eat bananas, apples, mangoes and berries. (11)
The foods that you want to avoid when trying to gain weight include:
- White sugar: The truth is that sugar is bad for you and will destroy your body if you eat too much of it. Eating white, refined sugar will only lead to cardiovascular disease, metabolic diseases, leaky gut, diabetes, fatigue and unhealthy weight gain. Avoid foods that contain added or artificial sugars and sweetened beverages. (12)
- Refined carbohydrates: Refined carbohydrates are fake foods that have been stripped of their nutrients and enter the bloodstream like an injection of sugar. Eating refined carbs triggers the release of insulin, which converts sugar into stored fat instead of supplying your body with fuel to build muscle. Turning to refined carbs to gain weight will also affect your insulin, cholesterol and triglyceride levels in a negative way. Stay away from white bread, white pasta, white rice, baked goods, cereals and refined grains.
- Hydrogenated oils: Hydrogenated oils contain trans fats that interfere with normal cell metabolism and are linked to many health conditions, including heart disease, digestive disorders and increased cholesterol levels. These rancid oils, like vegetable oil, soybean oil, corn oil and canola oil, will slow the recovery of your muscles after a workout, inhibit healthy weight gain and cause inflammation. (13)
Exercises to Optimize Weight Gain
If you’re wondering how to gain weight fast with exercise, it comes down to choosing the right types of exercise that will help you to put on muscle without burning too many calories. Limit the amount of aerobic exercise you do in a day. Cardio workouts burn a lot of calories and work against your weight gain goals, so instead of long runs, take shorter walks to help you bust stress and increase you appetite. Or for cardio, do burst training, which involves exercising at 90 percent to 100 percent of your maximum heart rate for 30–60 seconds and then resting for 30–60 seconds. Burst training at home will help you build muscle quickly. Try doing jumping jacks, squats and high jumps to get your heart going.
Focus on strength training, which includes lifting weights and strengthening exercises like CrossFit workouts, yoga and barre. When training with weights, do six to 12 reps five days a week for about an hour. This will help you gain weight by putting on muscle. (14)
A study published in Current Sports Medicine Reports indicates that inactive adults experience a 3 percent to 8 percent loss of muscle mass every decade. Ten weeks of resistance training proved to increase lean muscle weight, improve physical performance, improve cognitive abilities, enhance cardiovascular health and increase bone mineral density. Strength training can also ease discomfort associated with arthritis, reduce lower back pain and reverse specific aging factors in skeletal muscle. (15)
Want to know how to gain weight fast for women? Forget any myths you’ve heard about strength training being just for men. Studies show that it improves the physical, emotional, intellectual and social wellness of women. Strength or resistance training helps women (and men) build lean muscle, maintain their strength, and improve their agility and flexibility. (16)
What Not to Do to Gain Weight Fast: Healthy Weight vs. Unhealthy Weight
Here’s a common mistake that people make in an attempt to gain weight fast — they eat tons of foods that are high in calories but offer no nutritional value. Think about how that’s going to make you feel after a few days: tired, bloated, inflamed, cranky, unable to concentrate, unable to sleep, unable to exercise and the list goes on.
Of course the occasional treat is OK, but most of your food choices should be nutrient-dense, fresh, unprocessed and in their whole, natural states. Here’s a simple way to look at it…
Healthy weight comes from:
- Organic, high-quality protein
- Healthy fats
- Unrefined complex carbohydrates
- Plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables
- Nutrient-dense, high-protein shakes
- Fresh fruit and vegetable juices
- Eating several smaller meals throughout the day
- Snacking on high-protein foods in between meals
- Getting seven to nine hours of sleep per night
- Stress-free environment
- Strengthening exercises mixed with light cardio
Unhealthy weight comes from:
- Processed, refined and packaged foods
- Added and artificial sugars
- Sweetened beverages
- Eating very large meals only once or twice daily
- Snacking on junk food (like potato chips and baked goods)
- Sleeping less than seven hours per night
- Being stressed out
- Living a sedentary lifestyle
How to Keep the Weight on in a Healthy Manner
If you have had trouble gaining weight in the past, chances are that you’re going to have to keep working at it once you hit your goal weight. If you go back to your old eating and exercise habits, you will most likely lose the weight you’ve worked hard to gain.
To keep the weight on in a healthy manner, continue to consume more calories than you burn in a day (remember that’s called your TDEE). Focus on eating smaller meals more frequently so you never feel overly full or bloated, and use snacks as a way to bring in more nutrient-dense calories. I’m a big fan of smoothies if you need to get in some more calories for the day. Add a quality protein powder, kefir or probiotic yogurt, leafy greens, avocado, fruit, and coconut or almond milk. This will give you an extra boost of protein, carbs and healthy fats.
Finally, keep moving. Keep up with your strength training and light cardio workouts. This will ensure that you continue to build or maintain muscle, and not lose it.
Final Thoughts on How to Gain Weight Fast
- Wondering how to gain weight fast? There are a few diet and lifestyle changes you can make to gain weight in a healthy manner. Increase nutrient-dense calories, eat five meals per day, snack between meals and exercise to build muscle.
- The most important foods to eat to gain weight fast include quality sources of protein, healthy fats (including omega-9s and omega-3s) and complex carbohydrates (from starchy vegetables and gluten-free grains).
- Limit cardio workouts when trying to gain weight and focus on strength training instead. This will help you build muscle and gain healthy weight.
- Don’t turn to empty calories in an effort to gain weight — this will only lead to health issues like increased cholesterol levels and insulin resistance. Make every food count, choosing nutrient-rich foods that will boost your energy levels and keep your body running properly.