If you’ve been lifting for what feels like forever and you haven’t noticed any significant growth in your muscle mass, it could be because you’re not consuming enough calories. But that’s no excuse to eat as many bacon cheeseburgers and milkshakes as you want.
“The biggest mistake I see is turning to high calorie, low nutritional-value foods to gain weight,” says Torey Armul, R.D., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics who’s board-certified in sports dietetics. “It’s so tempting to reach for convenient high-calorie foods, like cookies, chips, soda, and packaged meals. You’ll gain weight, but not in a healthy way, and these foods don’t build healthy muscles, bones, and blood. In fact, they can ultimately increase fat mass, clog arteries, impair blood, and oxygen flow around the body and lead to poor heart health—which gets you further from your goals.”
Curious how to gain weight in a healthy and sustainable way? Here, Armul and Corey Peacock, Ph.D., C.S.C.S., an assistant professor of exercise and sports science at Nova Southeastern University, offer advice for how to add calories to your plate in a way that will help you see the results you’re looking for.
Increase Your Portion Sizes—Slightly
If you normally eat three eggs in the morning, try four. Or pour yourself a little more milk than normal. “Eat enough at your meal to feel satisfied but hungry or able to eat again within two to three hours,” recommends Armul (more on this on the next slide). Not only will this help you take in more calories overall, but it will also ensure you never feel like your gut is about to burst.
Eat Every 1-3 Hours
Although your breakfast, lunch, and dinner will be larger than normal, this is still a smart strategy. “It helps your body maintain a continuous stream of digestible energy, rather than trying to process large boluses of food,” says Armul.
Eat More Protein...
Peacock notes that one study showed participants who consumed significantly more protein than the recommended daily allowance saw improvements in lean mass, body-fat percentage and fat mass. What’s more, they didn’t see any negative impact on their blood markers or kidney function. Peacock recommends taking your weight (in pounds) and eating that many grams of protein per day, although you should “feel free to increase from there.”
And Time Your Protein Intake Correctly
“Strength training breaks down muscle tissue and, when the right nutrients are available, this tissue builds up bigger and stronger,” says Armul. “That’s why it’s important to refuel muscles by eating 15-20 grams of protein within 30-60 minutes of your strength workout.”
Drink Your Calories
While you don’t want to start chugging sugar-filled juices, Armul recommends sipping on protein shakes, milk, and/or healthy smoothies, all of which will help you take in extra calories. “You may also want to avoid drinking beverages with meals to allow more room for food,” she says.
Pour on the Oil
Canola, olive, or coconut oil can all be used as salad dressings or tossed with cooked protein or veggies—and they’re full of high-calorie fats (they contain about 120 calories per tablespoon). “Plus, they’re low-volume, so oils won’t fill you up as quickly as high-volume foods,” says Armul. “Choose oils like olive oil, sunflower oil, soybean oil, and canola oil, which are higher in heart-healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fats and lower in saturated fat.”
Limit Your Intake of Low-Cal Veggies...
While you don’t want to stop consuming them altogether—the vitamins and minerals they pack are important to helping you increase muscle mass—the fact is that you can fill up on leafy greens and other low-cal produce before you’ve taken in enough calories to really bulk up, says Peacock. “Juicing or shakes may be beneficial with these ‘super-foods,’” he adds.
...But Feel Free to Eat More Caloric Ones
A sweet potato packs 112 calories, while an avocado has a relatively high 227. Dates and coconuts also pack more calories than you probably realize—so you don’t have to worry about limiting your intake of these as much, says Armul.
Load Up on Nut Butter
Aim to start consuming two to four more tablespoons of the nut butter of your choice to your daily diet, which will net you an extra 180-200 calories. “I think this is the easiest of all recommendations, as all you need is to take the jar with you, and have a spoon,” says Peacock, who recommends natural butters such as almond, cashew, or walnut butter.
Use Sauces Wisely
While Peacock points out that many sauces are heavily processed and have little-to-no nutritional value, Armul says they can be helpful to men trying to bulk up—provided you’re willing to read the nutrition label before you start pouring. “Adding sauce can increase the palatability of foods, which makes you want to eat more,” she says. “The more you enjoy your food, the more you want to eat. It’s important not to make eating feel like a chore or a negative experience.” Some smart choices: pesto, tahini sauce, peanut sauce, guacamole, and curry, all of which contain heart-healthy fats.
Add Beans to Every Meal
Your bedmate may not thank you, but your muscles will. “This high-fiber superfood can increase your dietary protein and caloric intake drastically,” says Peacock. One cup of black beans, for example, has about 220 calories and 14 grams of protein.
Carboload on the Regular
Complex carbs are a great way to add calories—and give you extra energy, Peacock says. He recommends eating more brown rice and sweet potatoes—and quinoa is great, too, as it’s also a good source of protein. And if you can, try to eat the majority of your complex carbs within an hour and a half after your last (or only) workout of the day to refuel and keep your metabolism running efficiently.
One Last Word...
Remember that, even if you follow all of these tips, you still won’t turn into Arnold Schwarzenegger (in his heyday) overnight. “Just like healthy weight loss takes time, healthy weight gain requires time, planning, and preparation,” says Armul.