Healthy Weight Gain Diet
Recently a reader asked me “What can I do to put on weight when I am a picky eater?”
Now I almost hate to have to write about this because I am incredibly jealous that there are people out there that actually struggle to gain weight, but in all reality people with super fast metabolisms, picky eaters, children, elderly, convalescents and the chronically ill will all benefit from adding healthy calorie dense foods in their daily diet.
First of all before we get started, would you like to gain muscle mass or fat? Or do you need to gain both?
- Normal body fat in males is 5-15% (Red flag if under 3%)
- Normal body fat in females is 15-25% (Red flag if under 12% or a when a woman loses her menstrual cycle)
If your body fat percentage is within a normal range, then you more likely need to gain muscle mass. If you are under-body fat I highly recommend for health reasons that you gain body fat to ensure optimal health. Most gyms will test your body fat. Measurements by pinching or using calipers are less accurate than scales that measure weight loss. Total submersion however is the most accurate measurement to determine percentage of body fat. Always use the same machine to maintain consistency when monitoring weight gain.
The body begins to take fat from our vital organs such as our heart and kidneys (results in a condition called “kidney drop”) when we are under the normal range of body fat.
To gain one pound of body fat you must consume 3500 calories in excess of your daily calorie requirements. Now most people need between 1500-2500 calories daily, which depends on if you are completely sedentary or if you are extremely physically active. Most cardiovascular activities such as running, biking, swimming, and what not will burn about 500-1000 calories per hour depending on intensity. If you exercise a few hours a day you are more likely in the upward 2500 calorie requirement.
When I advise people to lose weight I recommend they eat 500 less calories than they typically need in a day. For the average active person this will be about 1500 calorie a day diet in order to lose one pound a week. For weight gain we need to do the exact OPPOSITE of that.
We need to add 500-1000 extra calories to a 2000 calorie a day diet in order to gain a pound a week. Some people with extremely fast metabolisms, especially if they are highly active or engaging in body building will need upward of 3000-4500 calories a day.
Before worrying about counting calories though, I would first worry about remembering to eat more frequently and eating calorie dense healthy foods. If weight is still not gained from eating more frequently and eating higher calorie foods, then calorie counting will be necessary.
Red Flags for Weight Loss:
- Weight gain problems in children should be closely followed by their pediatrician to ensure that they are following their line on the growth curve appropriately; and that developmental milestones are met.
- Weight gain problems in adults should always be evaluated for disordered eating issues such as anorexia and bulimia. It is not uncommon to develop an eating disorder later in life, and this is the most likely cause of weight fluxuations.
- Weight gain problems in the elderly although more common, should also always be evaluated by a physician. Insidious weight loss in the elderly may be a sign of dementia or Alzheimers. Sudden weight loss is a sign of cancer. Whenever anyone loses 10% of their body mass without trying, that is a RED FLAG FOR CANCER. Especially if fever and night sweats accompany sudden weight loss.
- Diseases commonly associated with weight loss: Anorexia, bulimia, cancer, dementia, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, depression, anxiety, anemia, rheumatoid arthritis, hepatitis B, celiac disease, gastritis, intestinal parasites, ulcerative colitis, chron’s disease, giardiasis, polymyalgia rheumatica, alcoholism, pyloric stenosis, hyperthyroidism, renal failure, lead poisoning, cirrhosis of the liver, systemic lupus erythematosus, HIV and AIDS, cystic fibrosis, and post partum depression to name a few.
- Please work with your doctor and establish a proper diagnosis before treating any condition with self help advice!
Many people have been brainwashed from the “Low Fat Diet” fads in the past that eating fat is “BAD” for us. Actually the converse is true. The optimal functioning of our bodies is dependent on the consumption of healthy fats. Our brain and nervous system cannot function without the good fats known as omega 3, 6, and 9 fatty acids. I strongly advise against a no fat/low fat diet unless used for therapeutic purposes under the advisement of a licensed physician or nutritionist.
Even people on a therapeutic low fat diet for cholesterol or PMS still need a source of healthy fat in their diet otherwise they run the risk of becoming deficient. Please read my article on “Flax Oil vs Fish Oil” to further understand the importance of fat in our diet and the common signs of essential fatty acid deficiency.
Healthy High Fat Foods for putting on weight: Avocados, olives, olive oil, flaxseed oil, canola oil, raw nut butters such as: peanut butter, almond butter, macadamia nut butter, tahini, any nuts, nut butters or seed butters, raw nuts and seeds like walnuts, almonds, cashews, pumpkin seeds, pecans, brazil nuts; coconut milk, and shredded coconut. Keep in mind the roasting process of nuts destroys their delicate oils and turns them rancid. Rancid fats are unstable molecules in our bodies that create inflammation and clog our arteries.
Healthy Protein Choices for building muscle: Chicken, Turkey, Alaskan Wild Salmon as well as any seafood, eggs, beans, raw nuts and seeds such as almonds, cashews, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, and flax seeds. Ideally any lean meat is a great choice, just eat high fat cuts of red meat in moderation as the elevated arachidonic acid content will result in inflammation. Whey protein powder is the best for putting on muscle mass. I like the vanilla or chocolate flavored Designer Whey protein powder.
High calorie milks for smoothies, soups and sauces: coconut milk, whole milk, 2% milk, soy milk, and almond milk.
Healthy sources of carbohydrates for weight gain: Rice, oats, cream of rice, cream or wheat, bananas, baked potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, squash, brown rice syrup, honey, agave, organic maple syrup, brown sugar, succinat, and turbinado sugar.
Weight Gain Diet Basics:
- Be sure to eat every two hours that you are awake.
- If you have a picky eater in the house offer these foods as snacks or “appetizers” before a meal so they are more likely to load up on higher calorie healthy choices.
- If you or your child is picky and do not like certain high calorie foods try to figure out what about the food is the problem. Is it the flavor, the smell, the texture, the consistency, the way the food is prepared?
- Healthy foods can be smothered in sauces and spices to cover up flavor issues.
- I highly recommend adding about 3- 6 tablespoons of freshly ground flax seeds to the daily diet of anyone trying to put on some weight. Flax seeds are high in protein and omega-3 oils (the good fats) they can be a great nutritional addition for those that tend to not eat enough to ensure they are not deficient in omega-3 oils. Omega-3 oils are especially important for picky eaters under the age of seven as the brains of young children are rapidly developing still, and the fats from flax seeds aid in the formation of the myelin sheath that surrounds all the neurons in our nervous systems. Flax seeds can be easily added to smoothies, soups, yogurt, and applesauce.
- Never restrict calories, unless body building is the goal.
- Do avoid “McInflammation” and worry about the kind of calories you are eating. Those with fast metabolisms that don’t have to worry about eating an unhealthy high calorie high fat diet will be more prone to suffer from high cholesterol and triglycerides, high blood pressure, and atherosclerosis that accompany a diet of highly processed fast foods. In order to prevent cardiovascular disease we need to ensure the calories are coming from a healthy source!
You can try making my favorite snack I invented “Coconut Butter Balls” I love coconut because the monolauric acid in the coconut inhibits viral cell walls from replicating and thus supports a healthy immune system! The medium chained triglycerides “good fats” found in coconut are also great for diabetics and athletes.
- Take a jar of almond butter, cashew butter, or macadamia nut butter and gently heat it on the stove until liquid.
- Stir in about 1/4 to 1/2 cup of organic maple syrup to taste (can add more or less depending on how sweet you like things, or may use honey, blackstrap molasses, brown rice syrup, or agave as well.)
- Add 1 tsp cinnamon. I have also used pumpkin pie spice, nutmeg, and ginger.
- Stir in a handful of coconut at a time until the mixture becomes stiff enough to be rolled into little balls. (You can also add dried fruit, nuts, and oats. This recipe is extremely flexible!)
- Form the mixture into little balls and then roll in shredded coconut.
- Put in the freezer on a cookie tray for a few hours before freezing in airtight containers. Or you can wrap individually in plastic wrap or waxed paper and store in the refrigerator.
- These Coconut Butter Balls are a great tasty treat for desserts, snacks, and pack well in school lunches!
Tips for underweight children that are picky eaters:
- Whatever recipes or treats you come up with using nutrient dense foods, be sure to make your child know that it is indeed a TREAT.
- From a behavioral standpoint you will be more likely to get your child to eat if they do not feel forced.
- Give your child options. Not eating is not an option, however they should be able to have a say in which high calorie foods they are eating. Ask them for instance if they want walnuts or almonds for a snack.
- If they don’t like something ask them why they don’t like it. Try preparing the same food several different ways before giving up on it.
- Take them along to the grocery store and allow them to participate in the decision making process. If a child picks out a food them self, they are more likely to decide that they like to eat it.
Tips for underweight adults that forget to eat:
- Be organized. Shop for all the nutrient dense high calorie foods weekly.
- Set your watch to beep every hour to serve as a reminder to eat something.
- Try a new recipe using nutrient dense foods each week.
- Drink a nutrient dense smoothie every day consisting of a full fat milk, protein powder (whey is best for putting on muscle mass), frozen bananas, berries, or other fruit; nut butters, and freshly ground flaxseeds. Being malnourished is more of a concern than being slightly under weight.
Tips for Elderly, Ill, and Convalescent patients in need of gaining weight:
- In addition to the above tips, ALWAYS have a doctor evaluate the cause of the weight loss.
- Fix them their favorite foods as often as possible.
- Make a nutrient dense smoothie every day. I would use a cup or two of a full fat milk if they can tolerate it (can use soy or almond if dairy intolerant as well or juice for the base), a scoop of protein powder (whey is best for putting on muscle mass), frozen bananas, mixed berries, or other favorite fruit, 3 tablespoons of freshly ground flaxseeds, yogurt, and nut butter.
- Serve whatever is the most palatable for them, but foods in softer forms like oatmeal or grain gruels, soups, stews, and casseroles. Soft, cooked, and liquid forms of foods will probably be the easiest for them to consume and digest.
- Try soaking almonds, walnuts, and seeds overnight in water to make them easier to chew and digest.
- Worry less about their long term health and more that they are remembering to eat, and consuming plenty of food each day.
- For elderly people that live alone have family and friends stop by to “dine with them” often so that meals are not frequently forgotten.
Please leave your favorite tips or high calorie recipes for picky eaters in the comments. I know what a frustrating problem this is for many parents, so every bit of advice helps! If you or your child are still unable to gain weight based off of basic “Weight Gain Diet” self help recommendations I would highly recommend seeing a nutritionist for your own individualized eating plan.
~Dr. Nicole Sundene