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Trying to Gain Weight?

Wanting to gain weight may seem like an odd concept outside of the athletic realm, but it’s a common occurrence within my world of counseling athletes. Weight gain may be desirable for counteracting relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S), disordered eating, or an eating disorder; for women trying to get their monthly period back; during the off-season; or for a position (e.g., football offensive lineman), among other reasons.

In this post, you’ll learn:

  • What healthful weight gain is.

  • How to gain weight and the influence of NEAT.

  • The role of fiber.

  • If weight gain shakes, powders, and other supplements are needed.

Here’s a free downloadable handout outlining high-calorie fueling tips, with examples per food group.

What is Healthful Weight Gain?

A starting point is a weekly weight gain of 0.25-0.5 kilograms (~0.6-1.1 pounds).

However, progress may not be linear. As the body gains weight, it aims to increase its operating efficiency and larger bodies require more fuel to run (see image 1).

Image 1

As weight gain occurs at a certain caloric intake, the latter will eventually become weight maintenance at that new, higher weight. For weight gain to continue, even more fuel will be needed (see image 2). The fueling plan that you set today will not be the same plan in a month’s time.

Image 2

Once the weight gain goal is met, the high caloric intake needs to continue. Weight gain isn’t a box to be checked and forgotten about—it’s a box that’s checked and continues to be checked every day. Continue to meet with the athlete even after their goal is met to ensure weight remains at the higher level.

How to Healthfully Gain Weight

It’s definitely not a free-for-all at Chick-fil-A.

Turning to whipped cream, fried chicken, and pastries may lead to excessive weight gain; be detrimental to an athlete’s heart, tendons, and ligaments; and create unsustainable fueling patterns (e.g., when the athlete hits their goal weight, the cravings remain. Or, if they choose to lose weight thereafter then it will be hard to break old habits).

Regardless of whether the goal is an increase in fat or muscle mass, a consistent intake of excess calories is the common denominator. Note that in order to gain muscle, a possible increase in protein intake (depending on the athlete's sport) in addition to a resistance training program are required.

Plus, weight gain may only require as few as 200-300 extra calories daily. For reference, one Chick-fil-A chicken biscuit is 440 calories. Design a plan that emphasizes healthful, whole foods and fluids, plus calorie-dense swaps (or additions) for an athlete’s typical choices.

An example of energy-density: 1 tablespoon of peanut butter has the same amount of calories as an apple. The latter is more filling with its water and fiber content whereas the peanut butter is small and dense.

With the number in brackets being the calories per serving, energy-dense swaps include:

For more tips, download my free handout on high-calorie fueling.

The kicker is that not everyone gains weight at the same rate, even when provided with the same surplus in calories. A study from the Mayo Clinic showed that when participants were provided with an extra 1,000 calories daily to promote weight gain, a 10-fold difference occurred when comparing high- with low-gainers. Another study subjected sets of twins to the same 1000-calorie increase and, again, the weight gain varied amongst sets, yet were similar within a set of twins.

The variation has been attributed to NEAT, or non-exercise activity thermogenesis (a.k.a., spontaneous exercise). Someone with a high NEAT may be genetically predisposed, a fidgeter or pacer (i.e., someone who can’t sit still!), and/or has an active life beyond planned training sessions.

Hence, a high NEAT person is somewhat protected from quick, high-quantity weight gain.

The Role of Fiber

Many athletes I work with want to eat whole foods. They perceive processed foods as detrimental to their health and performance. Yet healthy foods can thwart efforts in gaining weight.

One type of heart-healthy fiber (soluble) absorbs water and helps us feel full, whereas the other (insoluble) helps clear out our bowels. Fiber-rich items provide the feeling of fullness and are typically lower in calories (e.g., spinach, wheat bran, apples).

When it comes to weight gain, the goal is to consistently increase one’s calories above what they require for weight maintenance. However, if they’re so full off of fiber, they’ll feel uncomfortable. Imagine an athlete with morning and afternoon workouts: If they constantly feel full, even to the point of feeling sick, they won’t perform as well during their afternoon workout. Then add in flip turns for a swimmer, tuck jumps for a gymnast, or a long, jostling run…

If this becomes the case with your athlete, begin to swap out some of their higher-fiber foods. For instance:

  • White rice at lunch and brown rice at dinner, rather than brown rice at both.

  • Cooked vegetables instead of a fresh salad.

  • Applesauce or apple juice instead of fresh apples.

  • Wheat toast instead of high-fiber toast with nuts and seeds in it.

Regardless of caloric intake, adults are recommended to consume 25-38 grams of fiber daily*. Since athletes already have higher caloric needs, they eat more food overall—including more fiber. If you recommend an athlete to reduce their fiber intake to support weight gain, and receive pushback when they see white bread within your recommendations, discuss that they are likely still meeting their heart-healthy fiber goal—even in the presence of white bread.

*25 grams for women and 38 grams for men until the age of 50.

Are Weight Gain Supplements Needed?

Not necessarily.

In my practice, I begin with real foods and create a meal plan that emphasizes energy-dense items, frequent fueling, liquid calories, and includes a variety of options to avoid taste fatigue and boredom.

Remember: Anytime a supplement is introduced, the risk of consuming a banned substance(s) presents itself.

Take-home Message: Create a Plan, Follow Up, and Adapt the Plan as Needed

When creating a weight gain plan for an athlete, the registered dietitian should:

  • Evaluate if the athlete has been at this weight before: If not, evaluate if the goal is attainable; healthful for their body size; and appropriate for the athlete's family history of heart disease, obesity, and/or diabetes. Also consider how long the process will occur in a healthful manner as to provide the athlete with a realistic timeline. If you have access to blood work then utilize this to ensure weight gain occurs without a negative impact on the athlete’s heart, tendon, and ligament health [e.g., cholesterol panel, lipoprotein (a)*].

  • Mentally prepare the athlete for their new body: Especially if the athlete hasn’t been at the goal weight before, discuss how they may feel throughout the process. Clothes will fit differently and the athlete may not be prepared for comments from others (e.g., pre-weight gain: unsolicited, positive comments about how thin or ripped the athlete is; post-weight gain: no comments or bullying from friends or family). Encourage the athlete to openly discuss any body image concerns as they arise.

  • Create a plan that promotes healthful, steady weight gain: This includes both weight gain goals (possibly broken down into smaller ones, like biweekly or monthly) and fuel-specific options.

  • Increase calories by 300-1,000 calories per day: The calorie increase will depend on how "NEAT" your athlete is. If they can't sit still, aim for the upper end of the range. However, adding calories takes time for the athlete to incorporate and become comfortable with. For a 1,000-calorie athlete, begin with 500 calories for a few days, evaluate their weight, and taper up as needed.

  • Emphasize high-calorie fuel (i.e., more bang for your buck!): Swap water for 100% juice, soup, and milk (e.g., full-fat, flavored); hummus for guacamole; fresh for dried fruit; popcorn for trail mix; and plain for flavored yogurt or oatmeal. Avoid items labeled low-calorie, diet, and sugar-free.

  • Continuously fuel with multiple meals and snacks (or rename the latter mini meals): This requires planning, so have the athlete store items at work, in the car, and in a backpack.

  • Increase portions: Used to a scoop of pasta? Make it a heaping scoop. For a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, ensure a thick layer of peanut butter is spread onto both slices (or build a triple-decker sandwich).

  • Monitor the athlete’s weight and any areas for improvement: Evaluate their weight, ensure a gain is occurring, and re-evaluate the plan once a weight plateau occurs. The plateau could indicate the need for a calorie boost or that an athlete is struggling to execute their plan (e.g., weekends or afternoons result in skipped meals due to a busy schedule).

*High-sensitivity C-reactive protein (CRP) is typically measured in the clinical realm as a marker of inflammation. However, athletes may chronically be inflamed due to exercise, so a high CRP wouldn’t be an appropriate nor specific diagnostic tool.

Further Reading:

Organizes fluids and foods by group (e.g., cereals, bars) and provides tips per group on how to increase calories.

If an athlete is drastically changing how they're training throughout the week, fueling needs also require change. Otherwise, the ability to recover and improve performance will both suffer.

Levine, J.A., Eberhardt, N.L., & Jensen, M.D. (1999). Science, 283(5399):212-214.

Bouchard, C. (1991). Med Sci Sports Exerc, 23(3):285-291.


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