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Healthy Ways to Gain Weight

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WebMD Expert Column

For the majority of Americans, "envious" is the word that comes to mind for anyone who needs to gain weight. Most people are on the other end of the scale, desperately trying to lose weight

But for people who struggle to maintain a healthy weight or are trying to gain weight, it can be a real challenge.  Reasons for needing to gain weight include health issues, lack of appetite, fueling sports, building muscle, or just trying to overcome skinny genes.

Being a little underweight is not necessarily a problem, says American Dietetic Association president-elect Sylvia Escott-Stump, RD.

"If you are comfortable, able to function and exercise, weighing a little less than your ideal body weight is not a problem and studies show it is associated with good health outcomes," Escott-Stump says.

However, if you want or need to gain weight, do it the healthy way -- which is not about bellying up to an all-you-can-eat buffet. 

Calories Count, But So Do Nutrients

Focus on healthy foods to gain weight, because even though you have more leeway with calories, good nutrition still rules. 

"Weight gain requires eating calorie-rich but also nutrient-rich foods -- not just high-calorie foods with lots of fat, sugar, or empty calories," says Alice Bender, RD, nutrition communications manager for the American Institute for Cancer Research.

The goal is to choose foods that are packed with vitamins, minerals, nutrients, and calories so each bite is loaded with good nutrition.

"Start with nutritious foods and then wherever you can, enrich the foods with additional ingredients like yogurt, fruit, nuts, and healthy fats," Escott-Stump says.

Eat Often to Gain Weight

Regardless of why you want to gain weight, eating meals or substantial snacks (think mini-meals) more often is the way to pack more calories into the day. 

"Try to eat six times a day, with each meal (or at least three of them) containing protein, starch, vegetable[s], and fat," says sports nutritionist and Georgia State University professor emeritus Christine Rosenbloom, PhD, RD.

A sample meal would include a turkey sandwich on whole-grain bread with mayonnaise and tomatoes and a fruit smoothie.

Eat often and choose wisely, and you can expect to gain an average of half a pound to 1 pound per week.

Gaining Muscle Mass

"Athletes who want to bulk up need to add sufficient calories and protein along with proper strength training to make sure they gain weight in the right places," Rosenbloom says. 

She advises athletes to eat protein-rich snacks such as a high-protein energy bar, low-fat chocolate milk, or a protein shake immediately after weight training to give muscles the necessary post-workout fuel.

Rosenbloom instructs athletes to snack on high-calorie, high-protein foods and beverages, such as a protein shake with two scoops of whey protein before bedtime.

Avid exercisers who are not trying to build muscle mass also need frequent healthy snacks to fuel their physical activity and to maintain or gain weight.

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