Healthy weight gain is something many athletes strive towards, yet very few accomplish the task with ease. Contrary to popular belief, there is a strategy behind gaining weight the correct way. The first thing to know is that It is not in your best interest to eat whatever you want whenever you want!
In fact, you may have a coach or parent reinforcing this approach at the moment. Although I realize this method might make the most sense, it is not the approach which will provide the best results.
(And if deep down, you secretly have no interest in reading this article and you would just like to be told what to eat and when, you can skip to our Ultimate Weight Gain Guide.)
So, I want you to ask yourself:
How can I gain weight the safest and fastest way possible? How do I make sure I don’t add pounds and pounds of body fat? How do I do this with avoiding junk so I don’t feel sick or end up with GI distress to the point that I go to the bathroom in my pants!?
I definitely understand your confusion and questions. To help answer your concerns and provide real-life guidance, I pulled three food journals from my athletes this week for you to view. In this article, we will use food journals as a more detailed way to address common dietary patterns of athletes trying to gain weight. We will also discuss the most common pitfalls and greatest mistakes when it comes to healthy weight gain.
First things first….
What Does “Healthy Weight Gain Mean?”
Most often, healthy weight gain is the strategic approach an athlete takes to gain weight, predominately muscle mass, to have the best opportunity to excel in his or her sport.
This does not necessarily mean “bulking up”.
In certain situations, the athlete may be looking to gain weight for health-related reasons. For example, specific biological processes in the human body stop when calorie and overall nutrient intake is not meeting estimated needs- think of the young female athlete who suddenly stops menstruating or the athlete who has a wound that does not heal for months.
These are classic signs of inadequate nutrition.
This Brings Us To a Couple of Key Concepts:
- When trying to gain weight more healthily, you should place greater emphasis on appropriate meal timing.
- Be sure to place extra care in trying to achieve all macro and micronutrient needs.
In other words, an athlete trying to gain weight more healthfully is not just counting calories.
We should be focusing on rotating foods in the diet to boost the immune system by providing variety. This includes balancing protein, carbohydrates
, and fat at each meal vs. just heaping piles of random fast-food on the plate. This also includes the implementation of daily recovery nutrition immediately after a tough workout.
OK, onto the next issue we commonly encounter:
Quantity without quality is a major mistake.
The athlete attempting to consciously gain weight tries quite desperately to focus on quality of food instead of solely quantity. When weight increases as a result of an athlete consuming fresh whole foods, the athlete often experiences greater energy and strength in the process. On the other hand, the “old school” weight gain athlete who is eating whatever he or she wants in order to pack on the pounds may experience weight gains well as fatigue, digestive issues, and interrupted sleep patterns.Not to mention, a little more body fat than expected.
Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s take a look at a few real-life food journals. Below you will see the journals of 3 different athletes with goals of gaining weight, and the feedback I provided highlighted in green. Excuse the formatting differences since other than the names being changed for privacy, these were the actual journals submitted to me.
Marco’s Food Journal
7:15 – 3 scrambled eggs 2 pieces of peanut butter toast Consider adding a few veggies to the eggs. More color = better recovery and cell repair!
10:00 – KIND granola bar and an apple Good
1:00 – chicken breast and baked potato, protein shake Great, however, I would make sure to add salsa, guacamole, or olive oil and spices to the baked potato for a few extra calories. Every ounce counts and you do not want to miss an ample opportunity for additional fuel.
4:00 – Salad with bacon bits, shredded mozzarella, and croutons Add a quality dressing that is calorically dense. Examples might include fresh lemon juice and olive oil, avocado-based dressing, sesame oil with fresh ginger.
7:15 – 3 chicken tacos with tomatoes peppers and shredded cheese Consider adding a side of beans and brown rice.
9:00 – protein shake w/ 10 oz of milk 4 scoops of protein powder, frozen banana, 2 tablespoons of peanut butter This shake is excellent for weight gain. The key here is to make sure that
9:00 – 3 scrambled eggs 2 pieces of toast with chocolate milk Add a few fresh veggies and 1-2 ounces of organic meat to the scrambled eggs. The breakfast is OK as is, but knowing that this athlete is trying to gain lean mass, we want to add as much color and lean protein to meals when appropriate.
12:00 – turkey sandwich with guacamole Awesome- guacamole is one of the most calorically dense, yet nutrient rich spreads for a sandwich. #2 in line would be hummus.
3:00 – banana and peanut butter Snack of champions
6:00 – steak filet, corn and rice, roll and salad Although I am not sure of the exact portions on Sam’s plate, this is a balanced meal.
8:45 – protein shake 10 oz of milk 4 scoops of protein powder, frozen banana, 2 tablespoons of peanut butter Excellent
9:30 – almonds Great!
7:15 – 2 scrambled eggs 2 pieces of toast Add a few spoonfuls of guacamole on top of the eggs.
10:05 – Apple and peanut butter Excellent!
1:10 – chicken breast, salad, and baked potato Add a tablespoon of grass-fed butter if a red skin potato or teaspoons of coconut oil and cinnamon to a sweet potato.
4:00 – turkey sandwich with lettuce and mustard Add a side of hummus veggie sticks and pita chips
6:00 – pasta and salad with roll Add 1-2 TBSP olive oil to salad
8:00 – almonds and protein shake Add a banana to the shake.
Marco’s food journal is better than most that I see. His meal timing is impeccable and it appears that he is trying his best to choose quality foods.
As you will see my edits in green, the core of Marco’s meals are appropriate, but he would benefit from rounding out some of his meals, mainly in the way of good quality fat. Adding a few 50-100 calories here and there throughout the day may not seem like it is serving much purpose. However, when this is done each day over several weeks, an athlete will find that he or she is gradually able to gain weight without ever feeling lethargic or overstuffed.
If you are like Marco in the sense that you are eating well, eating often, and feel that you can’t possibly add any more food to your repertoire, focus on keeping the food volume low, but calories high. This means adding 1 teaspoon to 2 TBSP of plant-based fat to meals and snacks. For example, adding a TBSP of olive oil to your salad as part of the dressing or adding a couple teaspoons of guacamole as a sandwich spread.
While this approach may provide somewhat fast results, the end result is weight gain, yes, but a higher percentage of body fat is gained vs. lean muscle. Worst of all? Over time, this approach often leads to an increase in blood sugar, cholesterol, and inflammation in the body.
I realize that as a young athlete, some of you care so much about making weight that you just want to make it happen in the fastest way possible. However, I promise that you will be sorry one day when your health starts to decline and you are diagnosed with conditions and diseases that you never thought would appear in your medical chart!
What you put on the end of your fork can extend your life and improve your health just as fast as it can deteriorate your health. You decide.
Now let’s take a look at Nate’s food journal. Nate’s approach is what I lovingly refer to as the “old school” approach to weight gain. In other words, eat whatever you want, whenever you want, especially if it tastes good. This style of weight gain focuses more on convenience and taste preference and does not take into consideration any aspect of health.
Nate’s Food Journal
7:00 – 3 eggs with 1 piece of American cheese, 2 pieces of toast Choose grass-fed cheddar cheese instead of American and add veggies. For a less manufactured, more calorically / nutrient dense version of bread, check out this link for cashew bread and enjoy two pieces in place of traditional toast.
12:20 – 1 Peanut butter and jelly sandwich, 2 bags of chips, 1 Fruit cup, and 1 Bag of cheese crackers
Keep the sandwich, swap the chips for whole grain crackers and 2 TBSP of hummus. Remove processed, chemical-laden cheese crackers and replace with homemade trail mix containing mixed nuts, pumpkin seeds, shredded coconut flakes, dried cranberries, and bananas.
7:00 – 10 boneless wings, 1 side of fries, 5 Mozzarella sticks, 1/2 of a soft pretzel, 7 Onion rings While the calories in this meal are exceptionally high (likely exceeding 1000kcal), the tough part is that this meal contains approximately 3 days worth of saturated fat intake!! Fat is important for human health, but fat in the saturated form (fried foods) is the type of fat that can be detrimental to our overall health and performance. Not to mention, extremely inflammatory. If this athlete tends to be extremely hungry late at night, the best option would have been to consume a balanced dinner around 5:30 pm and then having a weight gain shake around 7:00 – Check out our article from a few months ago for recipes on homemade weight gain shakes.
9:30 A.M – 2 Granola bars Consider spreading a TBSP of sunflower seed butter on the first granola bar and place the second granola bar on top, sandwich style. This allows for a more balanced snack as well as an additional 90 calories without dramatically changing volume.
12:10 P.M – 1 Peanut butter and jelly Sandwich, 1 Popcorn Chicken Bowl, 1 Bag of chips, 1 fruit cup, 1 cup of applesauce
3:00 P.M – 2 pieces of pizza
7:00 P.M – 1 plate of homemade chicken and pasta casserole, 1 cup of applesauce 9:30 P.M – 1 plate of homemade chicken and pasta casserole Adding a side of cooked veggies to the casserole meal would be a great way to add a few extra calories while improving overall health. Remember, the more color you eat, the better your cells can repair each day. This athlete could also consider adding 1-2 TBSP of collagen gelatin to his applesauce. Collagen Gelatin is a great way to reach your daily protein goal while also helping to rebuild the lining of your gut and strengthen the soft tissue in your body. This is particularly helpful for the athletes playing contact sports.
10:30 A.M – 4 eggs with 1 piece of American cheese, 2 pieces of toast
2:30P.M- 1 Burrito with rice, chicken, steak, cheese, and lettuce, 1 Bag of tortilla chips The plus side of these meals is that they contain an adequate amount of protein, carbohydrate and fat. The downside is that American Cheese, toast, burrito shells and tortilla chips are highly processed, therefore causing inflammation in the body. The better option would have been a side of eggs with a few TBSP of grass-fed cheddar cheese and a burrito bowl with quinoa, veggies, grilled chicken, salsa, corn, and guacamole.
6:00 P.M – 2 Cheeseburgers, 2 eggs, 1 hotdog Dinner is a bit off balance. Protein goals are being blown out of the water and this meal contains ZERO balanced, non-processed carbohydrate and ZERO anti-inflammatory fat. A better options would have been a 3 egg veggie omelet with an ounce or two of lean meat, roasted potatoes, and a side salad with a few TBSP of olive oil.
7:00 P.M – 1 Bag of Teddy Grahams
9:00 P.M – 1 Bag of chips Processed snacks such as graham crackers that contain added sugar and or consist primarily of carbohydrates (chips) are not the greatest choice before bed. It would have been better for this athlete to choose a bedtime snack that contained lean protein before bed. A snack rich in lean protein would better stabilize blood sugar and promote muscle protein synthesis while asleep
Now let’s take a look at our final athlete, Jay. Jay is in a slightly more complicated situation because he is trying to lose body fat while putting on muscle. Although this may sound counter-intuitive, it is certainly possible.
Jay’s Food Journal
Peanut butter and jelly sandwich
While I can certainly appreciate the fact that Josh is trying to keep his calories in check, he is nowhere near where he needs to be for daily calorie intake!! In this situation, he should be focused on eating 3 balanced meals and a recovery shake at the very least. Why? It is the most efficient way to reach his daily calorie and protein goals while still keeping blood sugar in check and metabolism humming.
Peanut butter and jelly sandwich
Apple & Nutrigrain bar
Looks like we have the exact same situation again. Sometimes this occurs because an athlete truly believes they are eating what they need. Sound familiar? To avoid this pitfall, calculate your nutrient needs from the links listed above. Next, work with a local dietitian to figure out how this translates to meals and snacks each day. There is a good chance you will find that you were nowhere near your goal!
Peanut butter and jelly sandwich
Half a ham sandwich
Half a turkey sandwich
Other times a macronutrient deficiency or inadequate calorie intake occurs because an athlete never feels hungry or becomes full too quickly. If this sounds like you, it’s time to ask yourself,”Am I having at least one large bowel movement each day? Do I have pain or bloating after I eat?” If this is the case, you may have trouble with digestion and that calls for a visit with your doctor or dietitian.
If you answered no to these questions, consider the following tips and tricks:
- Do not drink fluid with meals, instead, choose to drink fluid between meals. This will help to prevent early satiety.
- Choose to eat fruits and veggies after your main course, not before! This helps to ensure that you are consuming a greater amount of calories before becoming full.
- Focus on eating smaller meals/snacks/shakes every 2-3 hours vs. a very large meal 2-3x/day.
- Avoid liquid-based foods such as soup as these foods can cause you to feel full despite the meal being very low on the calorie spectrum.
In summary, there is a right way and a less ideal way to achieve healthy weight gain. As long as you are focusing on appropriate meal timing, choosing whole foods, and keep added sugar to a minimum all while meeting the daily macronutrient goals that you set for yourself, you will reach your goal weight easier and faster than you ever imagined!
If you are looking for more extensive guidance regarding weight gain, check out our Ultimate Weight Gain Guide. Everything you need to succeed is in this guide – shake and meal recipes, tips and tricks for success, supplement suggestions, a grocery guide and a meal plan with snacks!
If you’re looking for an awesome handout to help you or your team stay focused and healthy weight gain, check out our handout Gain Weight Like a Champion. Do you have any tips or tricks for healthy weight gain? Have you experienced success in gaining weight by taking a more healthful approach? Please share your thoughts below!