How to gain weight without carbohydrates?
December 21, 2009 6:31 AM   Subscribe

LowCarbDietFilter: How do you GAIN weight on a low carb diet? I'm on a low carb diet for health reasons, but was already fairly skinny before I started, and now I'm having a tough time maintaining my weight. Any good resources that aren't all about weight loss?

Background for those who care: I've had many years of GI symptoms similar but not the same as IBS, as well as chronic canker sores (25-28 days/month or so) that didn't respond to, well, anything. After reading Gary Taubes' book, Good Calories, Bad Calories, I decided to stop eating carbs over the summer, in part to help my father lose weight. Well, within a week, I stopped getting canker sores altogether (and my father lost plenty of weight). At this point, I have a good baseline diet of various meats and green vegetables, lunchmeat "sandwiches" on lettuce, and lots and lots of eggs.

As a sidenote, I am experimenting with adding in various foods and seeing if the canker sores return (I'm trying out potatoes for the next 2 months). However, since that's just an experiment, and since it may well be that I will be stuck with an entirely low-carb diet as long as I wish to be rid of my canker sores, I'd like info really geared towards low-carb type diets.

PS: I am totally uninterested in comments discussing how unhealthy this diet is. Please make those comments elsewhere.
posted by sdis to Food & Drink (23 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Exercise less and eat more fat.
posted by mareli at 6:43 AM on December 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm curious, are you doing a low-carb diet because you don't eat grains/gluten or are you doing it to do a low-carb diet? There is a big difference as not eating grains/gluten doesn't mean you have to stick to a low carb diet. The health benefits you see from not eating grains/gluten will remain in the presence of healthy carbs.
posted by Loto at 6:47 AM on December 21, 2009

Eat at least twice as much as you do now and work out with weights.
posted by flippant at 6:55 AM on December 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Canker sores and the shits are common symptoms of Celiac disease, so if you've incidentally cut out gluten it's entirely possible that you'd have the same positive benefits, in the event that you suffer from Celiac. I think that reintroducing potatoes is a good start--I'd try other root veggies, too, as well, and stuff like sweet potatoes, quinoa, millet, and flax, plus lots and lots of brown rice. I would see a doctor about the possibility that there's something medical going on, particularly as Celiac is a serious medical condition if it's not managed properly through diet.

Mr. WanKenobi has Celiac. When he was first diagnosed, he lost a lot of weight because he could no longer eat the same convenience foods and there weren't decent alternatives in his area (bad gluten free bread is awful). Then he moved in, close to a really good bakery that makes really good millet and flax bread. He now eats three square and fairly normal meals a day and has regained the weight he lost. Unless he accidentally "glutens" himself (usually from eating at a restaurant) he feels fine. We also eat a lot of meats and cheeses--dairy has something to do with it, too, I think.

PS: I am totally uninterested in comments discussing how unhealthy this diet is. Please make those comments elsewhere.

Sorry, but I can't completely resist: even under Dr. Atkins' diet plan, a completely carb-free diet is only implemented for two weeks, and then only on occasion for "maintenance." Depriving your body of carbs long-term makes it likely that you'll experience ketosis. Whether this is healthy or dangerous is controversial, and you should be aware of the risks. Years before Mr. WanKenobi was diagnosed with Celiac, he put himself on an extremely carb-restricted diet. After several months, he was incredibly weak-feeling and tired all the time and just looked gaunt, even though his stomach was pretty calm and he wasn't getting his usual rashes--because he wasn't eating gluten.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:03 AM on December 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

nthing looking into Celiac disease. (Sidenote: in order for the blood test and/or endoscopy to be accurate you need to continue eating gluten, which you probably are b/c it's found in way more than just carb-o-licious foods).

On the matter of your weight: it's simple calorie math. Calories in minus calories out. Calculate your BMR and daily caloric needs and keep track of all of the calories you eat each day on a site like The Daily Plate. One pound equals 3500 calories. So to gain one pound per week, just eat 500 calories per day more than you burn (way easier to do than trying to lose one pound per week!).
posted by melissasaurus at 7:09 AM on December 21, 2009

Apthous Ulcers are awful and not well understood. Be careful about assuming that their absence is related specifically to a reduction of carbs in your diet.

I'd suggest being very slow and systematic in your experimenting. Track what you eat and when the ulcers manifest and be sure and do experiments that counter for order effects (ABBA designs and such).

I have always suffered from bad apthous ulcers but found they are reduced when I get a reasonable amount of exercise and steer clear of hard candy and short bread cookies (perhaps a sugar connection though other sweets don't seem to trigger it). I knew a guy who used to get them if he ate anything with tomato (acid perhaps?). So possibly your current state of bliss might be due to the removal of a carb correlate like tomato pasta sauce.

As for how to gain weight it is easy. Eat more of whatever you are able to eat. This is hard to do on a low carb diet because there are not a lot of low carb foods and you get bored and feel full of the foods you can eat (that's my opinion on the low carb diets - its nothing biochemical and more about carb abundance and variety making eating too much too easy).

I recommend Livestrong's daily plate to people who want to lose weight but it would work just as well for weight gain.
posted by srboisvert at 7:09 AM on December 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

You want to read Robb Wolf's blog. Robb is a smart dude that is a former research biochemist and knows a _ton_ about the benefits of a low carb diet. If you want to tune what you're doing, Robb has a ton of scientific knowledge and hands on experience.

Robb also has celiac, so he talks a lot about how low carb and gluten free has helped with that.

I'll warn you now that Robb's blog is currently heavy with a lot of political stuff and dirty laundry about his being removed from the Crossfit community. I'd ignore the stuff and stick with the nutrition prescriptions.

The short answer to your question is healthy fats, sufficient protein to support muscle growth, and short, high-intensity exercise (assuming you want to add muscle mass, not fat). Be prepared, though -- if you want to commit to a low-carb diet and put on mass, the amount of quality foods you are going to need to eat will shock you. Gaining weight, especially for naturally skinny folks like myself, pretty much requires constant eating. I'm talking 4000-5000 calories. Robb has chronicled his own mass gain, using these very levels of intake.

Just keep your intake food quality high and ignore the naysayers while you stop getting sick, see athletic performance go through the roof, and generally feel a ton better. Feel free to memail me if you want to chat nutrition some more or would like references to more reading materials.
posted by bfranklin at 7:33 AM on December 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

sdis, I would suggest a few things:

1/ Log a week of eating on FitDay and look at your overall calorie consumption
2/ Post a menu on - those ladies really know their low-carb and can help you correct your eating plan
3/ Make sure you're eating on a properly calculated Maintenance plane - it doesn't sound like you are.
3b/ Add fruit back into your diet! You were never supposed to eat no fruit on Maintenance.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:36 AM on December 21, 2009

When you say carbs do you mean vegetable carbohydrates too, or just grains?

I've got a condition called fructose malabsorption that necessitates a sugar- and grain-free diet, so for all intents and purposes I low-carb also. However, I am still able to tolerate potatoes, rice and rice products (ie noodles), and corn mean (NOT fresh corn, it must be degermed). I don't eat much of these because I am watching my weight - however, if I was intent on gaining I would focus on including these in my diet more often.

You might be interested in the work of Patsy Catsos.
posted by chez shoes at 7:44 AM on December 21, 2009

When I read your question "Celiac disease" was the first thing that popped into my mind.

- was already fairly skinny before
- having a tough time maintaining my weight
- many years of GI symptoms similar but not the same as IBS

I'd look into it, see of your GI symptoms match (canker sores are a symptom as well). As PhoBWanKenobi says, it's serious business. Untreated Celiac disease can ruin your life.
posted by geekchic at 7:45 AM on December 21, 2009

Really, really nth-ing having your problems thoroughly investigated. From your description Coeliac disease is a possibility, as is Crohn's disease, both of which are very serious conditions.
posted by Coobeastie at 7:55 AM on December 21, 2009

Shoot, I just typed up a big long answer and lost it.

I agree with the Celiac chorus above. If you have Celiac Disease you are basically malnourished because your body isn't absorbing the nutrients in your food. You can eat and eat, but nothing is going to happen. I was always underweight, and since I was diagnosed my average weight has gone up 15 lbs. I am still thin, but I'm on the low side of average now. I could put on more weight if I ate larger portions, but I like the size I am now. If Celiac Disease is the culprit, you don't have to give up all carbs. The only things off limits are wheat, barley, rye, and most oats. Rice, beans, corn, legumes, flax, amaranth, and lots of other yummy things are still great. The good news is that gluten-free foods have gotten so much tastier in the last year. Even Betty Crocker makes gluten-free mixes now.

You will have to go back on a regular diet for at least a few weeks before you get the tests done. Otherwise you could get false negatives. If you don't want to go to a doctor and get the official diagnosis you have already taken the first steps to a gluten-free diet. I cut out everything and kept a food diary. Every week I would add one new thing and see if I had a reaction. If after a week I was ok then I knew I could add it to my regular diet. If I had a reaction I'd know what to avoid. In addition to the wheat, barley, rye, and oats, I am also sensitive to high fructose corn syrup and my daughter is sensitive to straight milk. The key to adding things is to eat it every day for that week. I can eat something once and not have a reaction, it's the repetition that gets me. Eating a dinner roll won't hurt me, but if I have something else with gluten in it a few days later I'll be in trouble. Think of it like a paper cut. The dinner roll is the cut, it doesn't hurt too bad. The next time is like lemon juice, it hurts so much more.

The way to lose weight is to eat less and move more, but for people who are naturally underweight the opposite isn't always the way to gain weight. Especially if your diet isn't very calorie dense. I was underweight all my life and I got really sick of people telling me to eat more twinkies. I feel your pain. MeMail me if you want to talk.
posted by TooFewShoes at 8:13 AM on December 21, 2009

WRT all the instant "celiac disease" responses - careful there. There are many, many carbohydrate intolerances that cause similar symptoms, including fructose intolerance (more accurately called fructose malabsorption) and intolerances to other fermentable oligo-, di-, and monosaccharides, and polyols. Soy is a problem for many people - the fiber in it is not digestible and, therefore, is fermentable - as are sugar alcohols such as xylitol (in many processed foods).

I'm pointing this out because it took years for my correct diagnosis to happen. I kept testing negative for celiac, prompting the doctors to write it off as "IBS" or "all in her head."
posted by chez shoes at 8:29 AM on December 21, 2009

Go mad
posted by caddis at 8:51 AM on December 21, 2009

It's just as easy to gain weight on a low-carb diet as on a high-carb diet. Meaning, it's all about how disciplined you are. A gram of carbohydrates has exactly the same number of calories as a gram of protein. And a gram of fat has more than twice as many calories as either. So simply replace the carbs in your diet with protein and fat rich foods. Think meats, eggs, nuts, soybeans and dairy. Read the nutritional labels on foods to figure out where the calories come from.

If, on the other hand, you want to gain muscle rather than fat, you'll need to add weight lifting to the mix, and be more careful about diet. is a site for would-be muscle-heads that does a good job of explaining the correct diet. It's written by and large for skinny guys looking to gain muscle. It's also trying to sell you an ebook full of information you can get for free online, so avoid that part (and purchase Starting Strength instead when you need more details than provides).
posted by centerweight at 8:55 AM on December 21, 2009

Go mad

As it says right on the page you're linking to, milk is not low-carb.

Anyhow, what centerweight said. You need to eat more protein and fat, and squat, press, and pull.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:23 AM on December 21, 2009

Another thing you could try is having meal replacement drinks as snacks. Usually they are close to 300 calories in one go. Eat breakfast and have a Carnation Instant Breakfast shake, have a Slim Fast with your lunch, and have an Ensure after dinner. My sister was having a hard time with my underweight nephew and the doctor actually prescribed Pediasure to help him gain weight.

Also, I've heard that hard booze is pretty high calorie, so maybe go for the martini instead of a beer. Of course I have no experience with this, so YMMV.
posted by TooFewShoes at 10:30 AM on December 21, 2009

If you buy into Taubes's line of reasoning, and I think you do, it's basically impossible to gain weight without insulin... and insulin results from eating carbs. So either start gradually introducing carbs back into your diet, starting with the healthiest ones or the ones least likely to bring your symptoms back or try a cyclic ketogenic diet.
posted by callmejay at 12:12 PM on December 21, 2009

Exercise less and eat more fat.

That's not good for your health.

Presumably, the OP's goal is not merely to reach some arbitrary scale weight, but to build a solid, healthy body with some reserves.

Scale weight is, at best, a measure of progress. It's not a desideratum in and of itself.

People who are serious about bodybuilding gain weight on low-carb diets all the time. Other folks have offered good pointers to bodybuilding forums; you'll get lots of tips on this from posters there.

One thing that often "stalls" people who are trying to lose weight on low-carb diets is eating a lot of nuts and seeds. If your gut can take these (and if not, cooking with "nut flours" might be another way to do it), that's something to think about as a calorie-dense option.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:30 PM on December 21, 2009

I was on a super low carb diet for a while, and while I think I was eating the healthiest I ever had in my life in theory, I got too skinny, and I got depressed in part because (well, just a theory) my brain was craving glucose. For awhile I wasn't eating any carbs, except like sweet potatoes, and I just felt like crap all the time. I would never do it again without seeing a nutritionist to help my mind and body stay healthy. So I think it is possible to eat low carb and stay healthy, but like others have said, you have to eat the right kinds of carbs. Protein and vegetables aren't enough some times.
posted by Rocket26 at 4:50 PM on December 21, 2009

I went on low carb for similar reasons and I do the paleo diet now. I've found that I can do up to 125 grams of carbs a day and not have symptoms come back as long as none of the carbs are from grains. When I need to put on weight I look to yams, carrots, and other root vegetables in large quantities.

I was negative for celiac, but it's good to get tested anyway.
posted by melissam at 5:54 PM on December 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

How Tim Ferriss gained 34 pounds (of muscle) in 4 weeks. (1 hr. exercise/week, fwiw)
posted by bradly at 12:20 AM on December 22, 2009

I unfortunately(well, not exactly but it would be nice to have a simple label!) don't have celiacs. I've had colonoscopies, endoscopies, DNA tests and blood tests galore.
posted by sdis at 1:21 AM on December 22, 2009

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