How to Gain Weight Healthfully

By Nancy Clark MS RD CSSD

If you are among the few skinny folks who have a hard time bulking up, you may be feeling frustrated that you can’t do something as simple as gaining a few pounds. For underweight people, the struggle to bulk up is equal to that of overweight ones who yearn to trim down. Clearly, genetics plays a powerful role in why some of us have trouble gaining weight (and keeping it on).

Some folks are fidgety. They don’t like to sit still. Not only are they active with sports, but they are also active when sitting. For example, when I am counseling skinny clients, I observe them constantly tapping their fingers and shifting around in the chair. Such activities burn calories, too.

Some People Have a Hard Time Bulking Up

The technical term for these spontaneous movements is “Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis” or N.E.A.T. NEAT includes fidgeting, pacing while you wait for the bus, standing (not sitting) while you talk, being animated when being with friends, or tapping your fingers when watching TV. If you overeat, NEAT helps you dissipate excess energy by nudging you to putter around the house, choose to shoot some hoops, or (yikes!) feel motivated to vacuum the house. NEAT can predict how resistant you’ll be to gaining weight (1).

Historically, we have been told that consuming an extra 500 to 1,000 calories per day will lead to a weight gain of one to two pounds per week. But nature easily confounds this mathematical approach. For example, in a weight gain study where the subjects were overfed by 1,000 calories per day for 100 days, some people gained only 9 pounds, whereas others gained 29 pounds (2). NEAT likely explains the difference.

Researchers don’t understand the source of this increased activity, but they do know that people with higher VO-2max (a measure of athletic potential) are genetically predisposed to spend more time being active throughout the day. Hence the natural ability to be active for long periods of time (think marathon runners) might be connected to both NEAT and leanness. By contrast, unfit people (with a lower VO2 max – think couch potato) tend to do less spontaneous movements, which can lead to weight gain (3).

Five tips for boosting calories
Although you cannot change your genetics and your tendency to fidget, you can boost your calorie intake. Here are five tips to help you bulk-up healthfully.

1. Eat consistently. Do NOT skip meals. Doing so means you’ll miss out on important calories. Every day, enjoy a breakfast, an early lunch, a later lunch, dinner, and a bedtime meal.

2. Eat larger than normal portions. Instead of having one sandwich for lunch, have two. Enjoy a taller glass of milk, bigger bowl of cereal, and larger piece of fruit.

3. Select higher calorie foods. By reading food labels, you’ll discover that cranapple juice has more calories than orange juice (170 vs. 110 calories per 8 ounces); granola has more calories than Cheerios (500 vs. 100 calories per cup); corn has more calories than green beans (140 vs. 40 calories per cup).

4. Drink lots of juice and low-fat milk. Instead of quenching your thirst with water, choose calorie-containing fluids. One high school soccer player gained 13 pounds over the summer by simply adding six glasses of cranapple juice (1,000 calories) to his standard daily diet.

5. Enjoy peanut butter, nuts, avocado and olive oil. These foods are high in (healthy) fats and can be a positive addition to your diet by helping knock down inflammation. Their high-fat content means they are calorie-dense. Add slivered almonds to cereal and salads, make that PB&J with extra peanut butter, and dive into the guacamole with baked chips (without the ‘bad” trans- and saturated fats).

6. Do strengthening exercise as well as some cardio. Weight lifting and push-ups stimulate muscle growth, so you bulk up instead of fatten up. Sooner or later, exercise will stimulate your appetite, so you’ll want to eat. Exercise also increases thirst, so you’ll want to drink extra juices and caloric fluids.

Weight gain supplements
What about buying weight gain drinks? Save your money! A hefty PB&J with a tall glass of milk add about 1,000 calories for about $1.50. You’d spend about $5.50 getting those calories from Muscle Milk you mix from powder, or $14 if you pick up ready-to-drink bottles of Muscle Milk at the convenience store.

To make your own weight gain drink in the morning, blend 1 quart of low-fat milk with 4 packets of Carnation Instant Breakfast and 1/2 cup powdered milk (1,000 calories total). Toss in a banana or other fruit for more calories. Drink half at breakfast and take the rest with you in a travel mug. Easy!

By following these guidelines, you should see progress. But honor your genetics: If your father was slim until the age of 40, you might follow the same footsteps. Most people do gain weight with age as they become less active and have more time to eat. Granted, this information may not help you right away, but it offers promises for the future.

Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD (Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics) counsels both casual and competitive athletes at her office in Newton, MA (617-795-1875). Her best-selling Sports Nutrition Guidebook and food guides for new runners, marathoners, and soccer players offer additional information. They are available at See also

1) Levine JA, Ebernath NL, Jensen MD. 1999. Role of nonexercise activity thermogenesis in resistance to fat gain in humans. Science. 283(5399): 212-4.
2) Bouchard, C. 1990. Heredity and the path to overweight and obesity. Med Sci Sports Exerc 23(3): 285-291.

3). Novak CM, Escande C, Burghardt PR, Zhang M, Barbosa MT, Chini EN, Britton SL, Koch LG, Akil H, Levine JA 2010. Spontaneous activity, economy of activity, and resistance to diet-induced obesity in rats bred for high intrinsic aerobic capacity. Horm Behav 58(3): 355-367

The articles written by guest contributors are the sole responsibility of the individual writers in terms of factual accuracy and opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher of this blog.

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