People can gain weight in several ways. The simplest method is to increase the overall calorie intake while focusing on eating a variety of food groups. Individuals who specifically want to gain muscle can combine this higher calorie intake with sufficient protein and exercise.

A doctor may recommend that people with a low body weight try to gain weight. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 1.6% of people aged 20 years and older in the United States are underweight.

The most sustainable way to gain weight is to do so slowly. Methods of rapid weight gain may be hard to maintain.

People who wish to gain weight quickly should speak with a doctor first. In some cases, difficulty gaining weight or unexplained weight loss can signal a serious underlying health condition that needs medical treatment.

Read on to learn which foods can help a person gain weight safely.

A woman eating an ice cream cone to gain weight.Share on Pinterest
Johner Images/Getty Images

Carbohydrates, or carbs, are a nutrient that the body uses for energy. People often use the term “carbs” to refer to foods that mainly consist of carbohydrates. However, these foods may contain other nutrients, too.

Rice

Rice is high in carbohydrates. For example, brown rice provides 76.2 grams (g) in a 100-g serving. This type of rice is higher in protein than some other types of rice. A 100-g portion also contains 357 calories.

White rice has a lower protein content, but a person can serve it with other foods, such as meat or beans, to get more protein and calories.

Whole grain bread

Whole grain bread contains complex carbohydrates and is higher in protein than white bread.

People can increase the caloric value of bread by topping it with a protein-rich food, such as nut butter or avocado. They can also prepare sandwiches containing nutrient-dense ingredients.

Whole grain cereals

Whole grain cereals include foods such as oats, wheat, barley, and rice. People can buy these whole grains individually and mix them at home to serve with milk or yogurt. Alternatively, they can buy premixed cereals or cereal bars.

Manufacturers may add extra vitamins and minerals to these cereals, but some also contain significant amounts of added sugar. For this reason, it is important always to read the label.

Dried fruits

Dried fruits contain fructose, which is a sugar in fruit. They are useful as a natural sweetener and a way of increasing the calorie content of meals.

For example, people can sweeten cereals or oatmeal with dates, add dried apricots to yogurt, or blend dried fruits in a smoothie. Some dried fruits also work well in salads and certain cooked meals, such as tagines.

Dark chocolate

Chocolate comes from cocoa beans, which are high in carbohydrates. Compared with milk chocolate, dark chocolate usually contains less sugar and a higher cocoa content. This means that it has more of the antioxidants of the cocoa bean.

Products with a higher cacao content will provide the most benefits.

A simple way to add extra flavor and calories to a dish is to top it with cacao powder or nibs.

Other starches

People can add many other sources of carbohydrates to their diet, including:

  • potato
  • pasta
  • sweet potato
  • squash
  • corn
  • legumes, such as beans and chickpeas

Starches are rich in glucose, which the body stores as glycogen. Glycogen is an important source of energy during exercise.

Adequate protein intake is important for everyone, as it helps with muscle growth and maintenance. Some good sources include:

Salmon

Salmon is a source of both protein and healthy fats, including omega-3 fatty acids, which help support brain and eye health.

Eggs

Eggs are high in protein and healthy fat. They are also rich in choline, a nutrient that is vital for brain health and plays an important role in fetal development.

Protein shakes

Protein shakes can be a convenient way to increase protein intake without eating more whole foods. They can also be useful for people who are vegetarian or vegan and those who need to gain weight but do not have a large appetite.

The amount of protein in protein shakes varies depending on the brand. People can check the label or speak with a dietitian to find one that is right for them. The dietitian will likely advise looking for one that is low in added sugars.

Protein supplements

People can add many protein-enriched foods to their diet as a way of getting extra protein. Examples include protein bars and drinks.

These products may also help a person consume more calories or meet increased protein demands during pregnancy. Those wanting to track their protein and calorie content should check the nutritional labels of the available products to choose the one that is best for them.

Many dairy products are calorie-dense, and they may also contain beneficial nutrients, such as protein and calcium.

Milk

Milk is a calorie-dense food that is rich in calcium, carbohydrates, and protein. A cup of 2%-fat milk provides about 122 calories.

The protein content of milk makes it a good choice for people trying to build muscle, while the calcium makes it useful for people who are concerned about bone density or osteoporosis.

Cheese

Cheese is another dairy product that is high in calories. It also contains protein and calcium. The exact nutritional content will depend on the type of cheese and how manufacturers make it.

For example, aged cheeses tend to have fewer carbohydrates, so more of the calories from these cheeses come from fat.

Cheese can be a high sodium food, so people should check the label to ensure that they are not getting too much each day.

Yogurt

Full fat yogurt is a good source of calories and protein. It is best to choose plain or Greek yogurt rather than flavored yogurts, as these can be high in sugar.

A person can flavor yogurt naturally by adding honey, fruit, nuts, or unsweetened cocoa powder.

In moderation, unsaturated fats are beneficial to health, helping increase healthy cholesterol and reducing the risk of heart disease. They are also very high in calories, making them a good addition to any diet for weight gain.

Olive oil

Olive oil is calorie-dense and high in monounsaturated fats, which are a type of unsaturated fat.

A 15-milliliter serving of olive oil contains about 120 calories, so just a small amount per day can boost calorie intake, as well as adding flavor to salads, pasta, and other dishes.

Olive oil does also contain some saturated fat, so it is important to consume it as part of a balanced diet.

Nuts and seeds

Many nuts and seeds are good sources of unsaturated fat, and they also provide plenty of calories. For example, just 20 g of almond butter provides 129 calories, as well as calcium and magnesium.

Again, nuts and seeds can also contain saturated fat, so it is best to consume them in moderation.

Avocados

Avocados and avocado oil are natural sources of unsaturated fat. Whole avocados are also rich in vitamins and minerals such as calcium, magnesium, and potassium.

A person can significantly increase the calorie content of sandwiches, salads, and smoothies by adding some avocado.

People with a moderate body weight before becoming pregnant need 2,200–2,900 calories per day during pregnancy. For many, this amounts to a few hundred extra calories per day.

People also need to consume at least 1.2 g of protein per kilogram of body weight per day during pregnancy. This means that a person should focus on high protein, nutrient-dense foods.

Some options include:

  • eating more meat and cooked fish
  • drinking or eating full fat dairy, as long as it is pasteurized
  • trying protein shakes
  • eating high protein dips, such as hummus

Parents and caregivers who are concerned about the weight of their child should speak with a pediatrician before making any major changes to their diet. If the pediatrician recommends efforts to increase weight gain, people can try:

  • Whole fat foods: Parents and caregivers can give toddlers whole milk, whole yogurt, or other whole fat foods instead of reduced fat substitutes.
  • Energy-dense snacks: Foods such as avocado, banana, and cheese contain a lot of calories, even in small portions.
  • Dips and sauces: High calorie dips, such as guacamole, hummus, or bean dips, are simple to serve alongside vegetables or add to sandwiches.
  • Smoothies and shakes: Drinks can be a good way to add extra calories to the diet without the need to eat more at mealtimes. Parents and caregivers can combine the child’s favorite fruits with yogurt, nut butter, or seeds.

Healthy weight gain requires a focus on nutrient-dense foods that support the body. It can take time to attain a higher weight, but eating a wide variety of foods can help a person achieve their goals.

Before making any major changes to the diet, it is best to talk with a doctor or dietitian to identify healthy goals and the best way to reach them. Not all weight gain strategies are appropriate for all people.

For more science-backed resources on nutrition, visit our dedicated hub.

Read the article in Spanish.