While most people aim to lose weight, others aim to gain weight.
For some people, however, gaining weight is more complicated than the common advice to just eat more.
This article explains what to eat to gain weight, includes tips for safe and healthy weight gain, and provides a sample weight gain diet menu.
Who may want to gain weight
Gaining weight — especially for skinny people — can be advantageous for many types of sports and bodybuilding.
Even non-athletes may desire to gain weight because they consider themselves too skinny.
Other times, people may need to gain weight because they have a condition that causes them to burn more calories at rest or decreases nutrient absorption.
Conditions that can increase calorie needs or cause malabsorption include (1):
- certain types of cancer
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- wounds and burns
- cystic fibrosis
- physical trauma and burns
- inflammatory bowel disease
- celiac disease
People with these conditions have an increased risk of unintentional weight loss and its complications like malnutrition, prolonged healing or recovery time, and a weakened immune system.
How many calories should you eat to gain weight?
Gaining weight requires that you eat more calories than you need on a consistent basis.
If you’re a healthy individual, you can use an online calorie calculator to estimate your daily baseline needs.
However, an online calorie calculator won’t work if have a condition that increases your calorie needs or causes malabsorption.
Instead, you can get a good idea of what your calorie needs are by tracking your calories and weight for 7–14 days.
Then, add up the total number of calories you ate and divide that number by the number of days you tracked to get your average daily calorie intake.
Comparing your first weight to the last, you can determine whether you need to eat less, more, or the same number of calories each day to gain weight.
You can also just track your weight and maintain your normal eating habits to determine if you need to increase or decrease your calories.
An acceptable rate of weight gain is 0.5–2 pounds (0.2–0.9 kg) per week, which you can accomplish by eating 300–750 calories more per day than your baseline needs.
Weight gain diet
The best foods for gaining weight are those that have a high-calorie density — meaning they contain many calories relative to their weight or volume — and are not overly filling but easy to eat.
Foods with the highest calorie density tend to be high in fat and low in fiber.
On a per gram basis, fat provides more than double the calories as protein or carbs.
Here are foods to eat and limit for gaining weight:
Weight gain foods list
Here are foods to eat to gain weight the healthy way:
- Starchy vegetables: beets, carrots, corn, potatoes, squash, and yams
- Grains: amaranth, barley, buckwheat, oats, rice, rye, and wheat
- Poultry: whole eggs, and chicken and turkey thighs and wings
- Fattier cuts of meat: New York strip steak, beef ribeye, pork ribs, and
- Fatty fish: albacore tuna, herring, mackerel, salmon, and trout.
- Full-fat dairy: butter, cheese, whole-fat milk, cottage cheese, and yogurt
- Legumes: chickpeas, lentils, lima beans, navy beans, peas, pinto beans, soybeans, and peanuts
- Nuts: almonds, cashews, macadamia nuts, pine nuts, pistachios, and walnuts
- Fats and oils: almond butter, canola oil, extra virgin olive oil, and peanut butter
- Beverages: smoothies and protein shakes
Although fruits and vegetables have a low-calorie density and are typically filling, you should still include them in your diet.
Since drinking your calories tends to be less filling than eating them, add bananas, berries, spinach leaves, and red beets to smoothies (2).
Foods to eat on occasion
Here are some foods that can help you gain weight but that you should limit or save for special occasions:
- fast food
- deli meats
- frozen dairy desserts
- sugary breakfast cereals
Sample weight gain diet menu
Here is a one-day sample weight gain diet menu to gain weight fast:
Breakfast (845 calories): 1 cup (80 grams) of oats mixed with 1 cup (240 mL) of whole milk, 1 cup (80 grams) of fresh blueberries, and three whole scrambled eggs with chopped sweet peppers and spinach leaves.
Snack (390 calories): 1 cup (228 grams) of full-fat Greek yogurt and 1 ounce (28 grams) of almonds.
Lunch (775 calories): Grilled hamburger on a whole-wheat bun with toppings of choice, 3 ounces (85 grams) of sweet potato fries baked with olive oil, and 1/2 cup of carrot-apple slaw.
Snack (480 calories): Shake made with 1 cup (240 mL) of whole milk, 1/2 cup (66 grams) of chocolate ice cream, 1 medium-sized banana, and 2 tablespoons (32 grams) of peanut butter.
Dinner (530 calories): 1 cup (243 grams) of chicken and broccoli alfredo.
Use this sample weight gain diet menu — which contains around 3,000 calories — as a general guide.
Weight gain tips
Consistently eating more calories than you need from calorie- and nutrient-dense foods can be more difficult than it seems.
Busy schedules, side effects from medications or conditions, and a low appetite can all make it difficult to eat enough calories to gain weight.
Fortunately, there are several ways to keep the number on the number on the scale climbing.
Engaging in regular physical activity — especially resistance or weight training — can encourage your body to gain weight in the form of muscle rather than fat.
If you easily get full, exercise can also help increase appetite.
The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend doing at least 150–300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise like brisk walking or hiking per week, or 75–150 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise like jogging per week (3).
The guidelines also recommend doing muscle-strengthening exercises that involve all major muscle groups on two more days per week.
Eat less, more often
Not everyone can eat enough calories to gain weight in three standard meals without feeling miserable, tired, and sluggish.
Instead, eating smaller, more frequent meals can make it easier to get the calories you need to gain weight instead of trying to cram all your calories in over three larger meals.
Reducing the size of your meals and eating more frequently throughout the day can also help if you easily get full.
Drink your calories
Compared with solid calories, liquid calories have a much lower impact on how full you feel.
Plus, you can pack a lot of calories into a smoothie or protein drink using whole milk, peanut butter, Greek yogurt, and occasionally, ice cream.
Always keep granola bars, beef jerky, almonds, and other snacks in your car, purse, desk drawer, etc., as backup snacks for when life gets crazy.
Dedicating a few hours to meal prep each week can also make your week easier and ensure that you don’t miss a meal or snack.
Add high-calorie foods to the food you are already eating to boost your calorie intake without significantly increasing the volume of food you eat.
For example, you can add melted butter to soups and casseroles, use cream sauces on vegetables and pasta, and saute or stir fry meats and vegetables in olive oil.
Switching to full-fat versions of dairy products and choosing fattier cuts of beef and fatty fish over their leaner counterparts can also help you gain weight.
Do weight gain supplements work?
Weight gain supplements — or weight gainers — contain high amounts of calories, carbs, and protein.
Containing anywhere from 500 to more than 1,000 calories per serving, weight gainers can be effective for gaining weight.
However, some people find the taste and texture of these products unpleasant.
While a convenient and quick way to pack in the calories, you can also make a weight gainer with or without the use of protein powder.
Here are the best ingredients for making a homemade weight gainer:
- frozen berries
- 100% juice
- whole milk
- chocolate milk
- almond milk
- Greek yogurt
- almond butter
- peanut butter
- ice cream
You can adjust how much liquid you use based on your desired drink thickness level.
The bottom line
While most people are trying to prevent weight gain, others are trying to gain weight.
The only way to gain weight is to consistently eat more calories than you need to maintain your body weight.
Make sure the majority of your calories come from calorie- and nutrient-dense foods like starchy vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, fatty fish, and full-fat dairy.
Weight gainers can be a convenient way to increase your calorie intake, but you can also make a weight gainer shake using whole foods.