Obesity is a global epidemic, but the prevalence of those who are underweight is a significant public health issue as well. Being underweight is often a result of poor nutrition or an underlying health condition, and tends to affect women more than men.1
A number of health risks are associated with being underweight including hair loss, dry skin, fertility issues,2 and poor dental hygiene.3 In severe cases, people who are underweight may have weakened immune systems4 or develop osteoporosis.5 Similar to obesity, there is an increased mortality risk associated with being underweight.6
Underweight is defined by a body mass index (BMI) of less than 18.5, whereas obesity is defined as a BMI greater than 30; a BMI of 18.5–24.9 is considered normal.7
Note that being underweight (or overweight) is not always solely measured by BMI, and there are other factors to consider.8 Some people naturally have less fat than others and could be perceived as underweight due to their low BMI but are otherwise perfectly healthy. The same goes for those who may be considered overweight or obese based on their BMI. That's why it's best to speak with your doctor who can provide an accurate diagnosis.
If you're underweight and it's determined that your health would benefit from gaining weight, your doctor will likely recommend that you eat more weight-gaining foods that are nutrient- and calorie-dense to help you gain weight.
In order to gain weight fast and healthfully, you need to take in more calories than your body burns, ideally with nutrient-dense foods. Not all calories are created equal, and some food choices are more nutritious than others.
Signs That You May Be Underweight
Stock Up on Healthy Weight-Gaining Foods
It's important for anyone to consume nutrient-dense foods—regardless of whether you're underweight, overweight, or your weight is considered normal. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends including a variety of nutritious foods in your diet like protein, fruit, vegetables, grains, and dairy products for optimal nutrition.9
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) uses a 2,000-calorie diet as an example on Nutrition Facts labels.10 It is not necessarily a recommendation to consume 2,000 calories. The number of calories your body needs may vary based on factors like age, sex, and activity level.
If you're underweight, you'll typically want to consume an additional 500 calories per day. To do this, you might eat extra meals or increase the size of the meals you usually eat. You can also increase calories and healthy fats by adding fats to cooking—avocado, nuts, seeds, plant based oils.
If you don't have much of an appetite, you'll probably benefit from nibbling on small calorie-dense snacks throughout the day. If you're short on time for additional snack prep, you might simply increase the portion sizes of the meals you're already eating.
While it may seem like an easy solution to reach for a bag of salty chips or sugary ice cream since these foods contain a significant number of calories, they fall short on nutritional value. Foods rich in sugar and salt can leave you feeling sluggish and bloated. In addition, consuming these foods regularly and in excess may put you at increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.11
Though processed foods are typically associated with weight gain and obesity, they can also lead to chronic health conditions like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD),12 autoimmune diseases,13 colorectal cancer,14 and mood disorders including anxiety and depression.15
1. Have an Extra Slice of Whole Grain Toast With Peanut Butter at Breakfast
Start your day with a hearty breakfast and have an extra slice or two of whole-grain toast with peanut butter, which is calorie-dense and high in fat and protein. Two tablespoons of peanut butter have about 200 calories.16 Opt for natural peanut butter brands over options containing added sugar. Almond butter and other types of nut and seed butters are also healthy choices for gaining weight since they're protein-packed and have plenty of healthy fats.17
Whole grains are an important source of dietary fiber. Choose a whole-grain bread that has at least 100 calories per slice. If a bread contains nuts and seeds, it will usually have more calories and healthy fats per serving.
2. Drink Whole Milk, 100% Fruit Juice, or Vegetable Juice
Wash down your nut butter toast with a glass of whole milk for added protein, calcium, and vitamin D. If you don't like cow's milk or choose not to have it, opt for a nut-based milk alternative. It will contain fewer calories, but should still be fortified with calcium and vitamin D, which are important nutrients while you're gaining weight.
Throughout the day, choose 100% fruit and vegetable juices that don't contain any additives like sugar. Read the Nutrition Facts labels closely to ensure you're consuming real ingredients you can easily pronounce—the fewer ingredients listed, the better.
Sugary sodas may be tempting—and while they're high in calories they've got nothing to add nutrition-wise. They're loaded with added sugar, which is linked to an elevated risk of chronic disease.18
When it comes to beverages, choose whole milk or fruit and vegetable juices to boost your daily dose of vitamins and minerals.
3. Add Extra Cheese to an Omelet and Use an Extra Egg
Omelets are usually made with two or three eggs, some cheese, and a variety of added ingredients, so they're already energy-dense. Add extra calories by using a little more cheese and an extra egg in your omelet. But save room for some healthy veggies like spinach, peppers, and onions, or maybe some mushrooms and tomatoes.
Cook your omelet with a tablespoon of avocado oil or extra virgin olive oil. This will add extra calories and monounsaturated fat. You can also add a dash of whole milk or half-and-half to the egg mixture for even more calories and added creaminess. On the side, try a slice of whole-grain bread topped with avocado for a big dose of healthy fat.
4. Top Your Avocado Toast with an Egg
Avocados are widely known as a superfood since they're loaded with healthy fat and fiber and a great source of protein. They're a great choice for a weight-gaining diet. Take your avocado toast game up a notch with a fried or poached egg for a double dose of protein and additional calories.
5. Slice an Apple and Serve With Nut Butter
Many people don't eat enough fruits and vegetables, and although they're lower in calories, you don't want to give them up since they're also an important part of a balanced diet. Boost your snack-time calorie intake by slathering some almond, peanut, or cashew butter on apple slices. You'll get plenty of nutrients along with your calories to help you gain weight.
6. Add Chopped Nuts, Oats, Fruit and Honey to Yogurt
Enhance your Greek yogurt with a generous portion of walnuts, almonds or pecans, plus oats or granola and your favorite dried fruit. Top it off with a spoonful of honey, and you'll have a delicious and healthful snack or dessert.
Yogurt has friendly bacteria that help keep your gut healthy, and nuts have beneficial fats and add the calories you need for a weight-gaining diet.
7. Carry a Bag of Trail Mix for a Convenient Snack
Trail mix is a mixture of nuts, seeds, cereal, and dried fruit. You can buy trail mix in grocery stores or make your own. In fact, you can tack on a few more calories by adding chocolate chips. Keep your trail mix in a plastic bag or container and carry it with you on the go, so you have something to nibble on throughout the day while on your weight-gaining diet.
8. Increase Protein Intake (and Calories) With Protein Bars
a bunch of cut protein superfood bars on a table.
Protein bars are similar to trail mix, ingredient-wise. You can make your protein bars or purchase any number of bars in any grocery or convenience store. Check out the Nutrition Facts label to see how many calories you're getting per serving and if it meets the requirements for your weight-gaining diet. Be on the lookout for hidden added sugars, too.
9. Use Sour Cream as a Go-To Topping
Sour cream adds some calcium along with the extra calories needed for healthy weight gain. You can also add calories with cheese, gravy, full-fat Greek yogurt, or grass-fed butter.
10. Eat Larger Portions of Starchy Vegetables Like Potatoes
Potatoes often get a bad rap because they're high in carbohydrates—but your body uses carbs for energy and potatoes are rich in vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Amp up the calories by adding sour cream or yogurt—and bonus points for cooking with healthy fats like olive oil.
Potatoes are on the starchy side, so they're also higher in calories than green veggies. While you don't want to give up on Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and kale, you should feel free to load up on potatoes, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, winter squash, and even sweet corn.
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