Healthy Weight Gain & Muscle Mass Diet
by Sue Kira, Naturopath & Clinical Nutritionist
Some people are naturally thin (many who are not would be quite jealous). But for those who want to increase their natural weight, it can be difficult because there are no guarantees. Many factors come into play when bulking up your body.
However, if low weight is associated with chemotherapy, radiation, infection, post-surgery, being unwell, or not eating the right foods for your body, then this diet can help you to put on weight steadily.
Check with your doctor to ensure you don’t have any health conditions causing weight loss, such as an overactive thyroid which increases your metabolism and makes you lose weight rapidly. Cancers and other serious diseases can also make you lose weight, so be sure to get a full medical check, especially if weight loss is something new for you.
This diet can also help body builders who want to increase weight or ‘bulk up’. Again, no guarantee is offered here, but healthy nourishing foods, with good fats, quality protein and healthy carbohydrates have helped many to do so.
If low appetite has been a problem for you, it might be due to needing certain nutrients such as the B group vitamins, magnesium and zinc. However, there are plenty of foods to support them.
Some people have a low appetite due to low histamine levels often termed overmethylation or histapenia. Histapenia is characterized by elevated levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine and noradrenalin, low blood histamine, and low basophil levels (type of white blood cell).
The typical symptoms can include: low appetite, absence of seasonal inhalant allergies (low histamine) although there may be chemical or food sensitivities, high anxiety, obsessions but not compulsions, heavy body hair, high serum copper levels and commonly, low zinc levels.
Be aware not to have high copper foods such as almonds, chocolate, or soybean products if you have been diagnosed with overmethylation, histapenia or low histamine. For further information go to the article about the MTHFR/Methylation Diet.
Slow and steady: weight gain the healthy way
If you try and put on weight too fast then your body thinks there is something wrong and will take counter measures to avoid this happening, such as reducing your appetite, changing your metabolic rate, and feeling stressed, which can actually make you lose weight.
Slow and steady is the best way to increase your weight.
It is also important to gain weight by eating healthy food otherwise you will increase your risk of diseases like diabetes, heart disease and cancer – to name just a few.
If you use junk foods to gain weight, not only will you increase your health risks, but you will also increase inflammation in the body which will make it really difficult to increase muscle mass from weight training.
It is preferable that you gain mostly muscle mass and just a small amount of subcutaneous (under the skin) fat, rather than fat that sits around your belly and thereby your internal organs, which is unhealthy and can lead to serious health conditions.
The aim is to achieve weight gain without ruining your health at the same time.
To gain weight you need to eat more calories than you currently consume. Aim for an extra 300-500 calories per day. So if 2000 calories a day currently maintains you, then 2300-2500 a day will help you to gradually put on weight safely.
Many say you need to eat lots of carbs or fat to bulk up. While these are necessary, by far the most important food for weight gain is protein. Your muscles are made of protein and without protein, the extra calories you eat will turn to fat.
You will also need weight training to turn what you ate into muscle mass, or it too will turn into fat.
High-protein foods include beef, lamb, turkey, chicken, duck, pork, fish, eggs, legumes, nuts, and seeds.
Protein supplements are often suggested by gyms and personal trainers but I’m not a fan of this processed type of protein. I have seen many body builders with issues from these types of supplements, so I do not recommend them.
Energy/calorie dense foods
Along with protein, eating energy dense foods that have a high ratio of calories per gram can help you put on weight. Every gram of a carbohydrate has only four calories, whereas every gram of fat has nine calories, so healthy fat is great for gaining weight.
Take care with excess fat as too much can give you diarrhoea, which is not a good idea if you don’t want to flush extra weight down the toilet.
Calorie dense foods include:
- Nuts such as almonds, walnuts, cashews, macadamia nuts, peanuts, etc
- Dried fruit such as dates, raisins, prunes etc
- Extra virgin olive oil, macadamia, coconut, and avocado oil
- Sauces, dressings, and condiments that contain oils
- Grains like quinoa and brown, black, and red rice
- Meat: chicken, beef, pork, lamb, and eat the fat with them
- Tubers: potatoes, sweet potatoes, and yams
- Dark chocolate (dairy free), low sugar varieties, raw cacao treats
- Avocado and aioli dip/guacamole
- Coconut cream/milk, creamed coconut (flesh of coconut creamed)
- Trail mixes, protein and date balls
Eating some of the above foods as snacks between meals can help to top up your calories for the day. Your friends and work colleagues who are trying to lose weight will be envious of your yummy snacks.
To ensure your extra calories don’t turn to fat it is important to do weight lifting and gradually increase the weight load as you get fitter and stronger as your muscles get bigger. Going to the gym or working with a personal trainer 2-4 times per week will make a big difference.
See your doctor for a medical check-up before starting any gym or weight training and ensure your spine is healthy. There are practitioners such as physiotherapists, osteopaths or chiropractors who can assess and treat spinal issues. If your back is unstable or weak, you may strain yourself and then can’t train for a while, which will delay your progress.
It’s also a good idea to incorporate some cardio exercise, with weight training being the core of your work to build muscles.
- Getting plenty of quality sleep is important for muscle growth
- Use a large plate as small plates psychologically make you eat less, which is a good tip (in reverse) for those wanting to lose weight
- Don’t smoke, as smokers tend to have a harder time putting on weight or retaining it, because of the stimulation of the nicotine and chemicals in tobacco and the cigarette papers
- Don’t drink water before or with meals as it can fill you up and you won’t have room for food. If you are thirsty just have a sip. Ensure you are hydrated at other times away from meals.
- Eat more frequently than the usual three meals per day if possible. Eating three meals plus snacks, and even a snack before bed, can squeeze in extra calories. Ensure the last feed is not too heavy or spicy or you might affect the quality of your sleep. If you wake feeling tired, then keep the food light in the evenings.
- It’s important to be consistent and not frustrated if it takes time for the weight to increase. Your body may resist change by regulating your appetite and metabolism and have a favourite ‘set-point’ for a while.
Before you commence your diet, see your medical or health care professional for qualified guidance about what foods and supplements are best for your body. While on the diet do not stop any medications or supplements previously prescribed unless advised otherwise by your medical or health care professional.
During the early stages of a new diet, you may experience symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, or body aches, which may occur because your body is detoxifying. However, if you are unsure about a symptom at any time, check immediately with your medical or health care professional.
Client name and identifying information changed
When Bill first came in to see me he had just come back from a trip to India where he caught a tummy bug (Delhi belly) which really wiped him out. Before he left for India he was 65kgs (143 pounds) which was quite light for his 6 foot, normal sized frame. But when he returned he only weighed 60kgs (132 pounds) and there didn’t seem to be much of him apart from skin and bones.
He had been light most of his life, but there was a time when he drank lots of beer and ate loads of junk food and his weight increased to 80kgs. But judging from his old photos, he was rather unhealthy looking with a fat belly which would have increased his risk of diseases.
This time, Bill wanted help to put on weight and re-gain his health, without eating ‘crap’ food and drink.
Initially we needed to sort out his gut disturbance, otherwise any bacteria or parasites that didn’t belong there were going to suck all the nutrients out of his diet. To do this we used some herbs and probiotics, and he followed the healing Leaky Gut Diet.
Once all that was sorted, he started on the diet for weight gain which included a breakfast of eggs and nitrate free bacon with gluten free bread (and other options). At mid-morning he enjoyed a green smoothie with coconut oil and dates, which meant he could still get plenty of healthy greens in his diet. The oil helped with extra calories.
Lunch was usually some form of protein like chicken, beef, lamb, turkey, or fish, with a healthy salad that had plenty of olive oil or aioli mixed with herbs. Mid-afternoon was a snack of one of the protein balls recipes. He ate 4-5 of these and as they were reasonably high calories, this added quite a bit of bulk to his diet plus loads of healthy nutrients.
He often had another snack before dinner and dinner was similar to lunch. Then he topped off the evening with a dessert consisting of coconut yogurt or coconut cream with fresh fruit and nuts.
Along with the diet, Bill joined the gym and worked with a personal trainer on a body building program. He gradually built his body as his strength returned and the muscles developed.
In the first month Bill put on 3kg (6.5lbs), which was a nice steady gain. Over the next two months he put on another 2kg (4.4lbs) per month and then each month after that he put on another 1kg (2.2lbs). Slow but steady and healthy.
Within six months he increased by 10kgs and plateaued at this weight. But interestingly, he looked bigger with more muscles than when he was 80kgs, according to his photos. Bigger in overall bulk, without the fat gut he had before and looking good at 70kgs which suited his body.