Help me gain weight.
November 19, 2012 7:57 AM   Subscribe

Is it possible to healthily gain and keep on 20-30 lbs without (regimented) exercise and while being on a low-carbohydrate diet?

I have a hard time gaining and keeping on weight. I don't generally have much of an appetite, I'm sated pretty quickly, and doing the "constantly eat things throughout the day" thing is a bit of an imposition. I'm on a low-carb diet because, so far, that's been the only solution to my chronic stomach pain. I'm also lactose intolerant, but I don't have a problem with greek yogurt and aged cheese.

I'm doing better than I've ever been about this: I have breakfast (usually a big fruit smoothie,) lunch (lunchmeat, some veggies, aged cheese, pickles, sometimes some fruit) and dinner (usually a bunch of meat and a bunch of cooked veggies, usually with pickled stuff and sometimes greek yogurt) and I sometimes have a snack (a second lunch, basically) before bed if dinner was early. On weekends, I'll sometimes eat stuff that's off the diet, like a burger with the bun or tacos. I drink maybe three or four Mexican Coca-Colas (500 ml, sugar rather than HFCS) a week as well.

So how do I cut in more calories? "Eat more food" is well and good, but my appetite hasn't significantly increased since eating better and more regularly. I'd like to do this in as healthy a manner as possible, so I guess I should be eating more calorie-rich things? We don't keep junk food in the house, and I'd rather not start. I was thinking about maybe putting protein powder in my smoothies in the morning, but is the whey stuff actually lactose-free? They cut straight lactose into a surprising amount of foods and supplements. Are there some sort of vitamins I ought to be taking?

Any ideas would help.
posted by griphus to Food & Drink (35 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Geez, I'm kind of jealous. I gain weight very easily.

Okay, envy out of the way.

There are some things that are calorie dense and good for you:

Nuts/Nut Butters
Soy Protein (not whey)
Dreamfields Pasta (low carb pasta, so yummy)

Those are my thoughts.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:02 AM on November 19, 2012

Add more healthy fat - oils, nut butters, that sort of thing. One easy way to do this would be to add avocado to your smoothie (it is a tasty addition, I promise). Coconut milk would also work.

There are good non-whey protein powders out there too. I like hemp stuff, and also Raw Protein.
posted by susanvance at 8:07 AM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Be careful with the Dreamfields pasta. It's got a lot of inulin in it and it gives me extreme stomach pain.

There are several brands of greek yogurt that haven't removed all of the delicious fat. They're pretty calorie dense AND tasty. Also eat more nuts and nut butters.
posted by elsietheeel at 8:09 AM on November 19, 2012

Adding healthy fats to your diet will definitely increase your caloric intake without adding a ton more "volume" of additional foods, as fats are very calorie dense. Aim to eat a whole avocado a day, split up between meals if it's too rich at first. Eat your veggies with some olive oil drizzled on top. Rather than lunch meat (typically low fat and full of preservatives) for your lunch, cook up some higher fat meats the night before to pair with veggies and olive oil.

Adding a scoop of protein powder to your daily shake is a great idea. You can google around for lactose free protein powders.

Because you are generally following it already anyway, you may want to read up on paleo diets. Many paleo recipes by their nature will include lots of healthy fats, as the rest of us who are not satiated so easily need those fats to feel full, and to use as energy. Though insanely long, I feel like this blog post gives a great introduction to paleo.
posted by Gonestarfishing at 8:14 AM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Expect that the higher-fat stuff will make you feel sated even more quickly and for longer, though, so maybe spread the intake throughout the day, rather than just adding a bunch of avocado and almond butter to your breakfast smoothie, etc. (just mentioning this because you said your appetite is already on the lower side).
posted by so_gracefully at 8:15 AM on November 19, 2012

Definitely protein up your breakfast. Nothing with evil whey is lactose free. It is the evillest. There are pea protein powders and egg white ones and soy ones and whatevs instead.
posted by elizardbits at 8:22 AM on November 19, 2012

Re: soy protein, I've heard/read stuff about it having negative effects on testosterone levels when eaten in the amounts found in soy-based protein supplements. Unfortunately, I can't actually find any info on that which isn't a) on bodybuilding forums, which are not exactly bastions of scientific accuracy and b) in papers in medical journal that I have a hard time deciphering. So any help on that front would be awesome.
posted by griphus at 8:26 AM on November 19, 2012

Are you trying to gain muscle or fat? Because you can't gain muscle without exercise and I don't see the point of gaining fat.

Unless you're dangerously thin or particularly weak in which case I guess shooting for general "weight" gain makes sense.
posted by fshgrl at 8:29 AM on November 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

It sounds like you are pretty conscious of what you eat already, but I am wondering whether keeping a food journal might help. It's the only thing that ever enabled me to lose weight, but the way it helped was to make me conscious of patterns-- like it might seem OK to have some ice cream midday, but I would be a lot hungrier later. Also, oatmeal seemed like a good breakfast but ditto on getting hungrier later. So maybe you could journal your food intake (with nutritional values if possible) and your weight for a couple of weeks and see if you identify patterns about what enables you to eat more, comfortably. And also what kind of eating makes your weight go up. (In my experience, claims that you just need to count calories have not proven helpful.)
posted by BibiRose at 8:32 AM on November 19, 2012

Unless you're dangerously thin or particularly weak in which case I guess shooting for general "weight" gain makes sense.

Bingo. I am borderline underweight.
posted by griphus at 8:34 AM on November 19, 2012 on Whey Protein. Look for 'whey isolate' instead of 'whey concentrate,' or look for hemp or pea-based protein powders.
You don't need to worry about soy.

What do you mean when you say 'put on weight' healthily? If you just eat a caloric excess, you'll add body fat (not necessarily a bad thing). To build muscle mass, you need to stress your muscles so they'll adapt; that is, exercise.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:34 AM on November 19, 2012

Yeah, I mean. Just eating more til you gain 20-30lbs is not super healthy, dude. I know you don't want regimented exercise but for serious, deadlifting/squats/etc will result in healthy gain.

I guess you could research what airlines and aid agencies call "refugee meals" for quick and somewhat healthy gain.
posted by elizardbits at 8:35 AM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you just eat a caloric excess, you'll add body fat (not necessarily a bad thing).

Yeah, just to make it double-extra clear, this has nothing at all to do with gaining muscle mass. I just can't figure out how to eat a caloric excess considering my diet restrictions, metabolism, and the unregimented exercise I'm getting (I do a lot of walking at a much faster clip than the sort of walking that doesn't actually count as 'exercise'.)
posted by griphus at 8:39 AM on November 19, 2012

I'm willing to play "decipher that scientific paper" if you want to MeMail the link to me.
posted by zug at 8:45 AM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Do you have stomach problems with all carbohydrates, or is sugar okay? (Perhaps your problems are due to gluten or fibre?)

I'm just asking because my first thought is that when people are underweight, they are often prescribed nutritional supplement drinks, like Ensure, but they can have a lot of sugar in them (which, of course, helps gain/maintain your weight).
posted by jb at 8:51 AM on November 19, 2012

Note: they do have lactose-free versions of Ensure.
posted by jb at 8:51 AM on November 19, 2012

This makes no sense. Borderline underweight according to who? Do you feel good? Are you healthy? 20-30lbs is a lot of fat to gain and will in no way make your body better.

Almost my entire family is overweight. For years they've told me I'm underweight just because I'm fit. A lot of people have pretty warped definitions of what a normal body looks like. Your weight shouldn't have anything to do with anyone else's happiness. I creeped your flickr and you look absolutely fine and normal.

If you're set on this, adding a shot glass or two full of olive oil to everything you cook is a super easy and healthy way to add calories that don't feel filling. e.g. Two shots in your breakfast shake is an extra 300 calories and won't effect the taste much. A shot in the morning and with your dinner would work well.

1 or 2 servings of All Natural Peanut butter right before bed or during the day/with lunch is easy as well.
posted by zephyr_words at 8:54 AM on November 19, 2012

Borderline underweight according to who?

My doctor. This is absolutely not a body image issue. I am not fit, and I have stamina/weakness issues (which make working out v. difficult, especially after I stopped eating carbs, so I want to get on a proper diet before I start actually working out.) Although perhaps 20-30 lbs is overshooting it.
posted by griphus at 8:57 AM on November 19, 2012

+1 Ensure, this is the stuff GI patients knock down after weight loss.

You are correct in that it is hard to gain weight on a low-carb diet, especially with GI issues. You need a nutritionist. Do you know the root cause of your stomach pain?
posted by crazycanuck at 9:22 AM on November 19, 2012

How do you make your smoothie? I'm one of the paleo people, and I make mine with coconut milk and whatever fruit is on hand (or frozen) nearby. Coconut milk adds a lot of fat, which powers me through most of my day, and is non-dairy.

I second the avocado idea above; healthy, fat-heavy and also delicious.

Another fun way to up your calories and stay low-carb: Bacon!

All that said, some questions - have you ever tried cutting out wheat? Your problem may be an intolerance not to carbohydrates, but to the most omnipresent carb there is. I had loads of GI problems until I cut wheat from my diet, at which point they resolved almost completely. And if you're lucky, and it IS just wheat, it's incredibly easy to increase your carbs and calories by adding in sweet potatoes, which are also amazingly delicious.

And, is the problem with exercise that it's regimented, or that it's exercise? You can build muscle just by lifting heavy once or twice a week - it doesn't have to be a crazy regimen. I don't do it, I build my muscle just running around and living my life, but strength/weight gain isn't my goal. I'm sure others here could introduce you to a very minimal way to build without going crazy with gym trips.
posted by kythuen at 9:32 AM on November 19, 2012

I have stamina/weakness issues (which make working out v. difficult, especially after I stopped eating carbs, so I want to get on a proper diet before I start actually working out.

Your diet doesn't look all that low-carb to me. Fruit smoothies? Coke? That's not necessarily a bad thing if you're trying to gain fat, of course. I'm not sure why you want to gain fat, unless your doctor said that is the thing to do. If you really do want to add fat, I'd eat more fruit, coke, etc., and perhaps do cardio to increase your appetite.

It is absolutely possible to exercise and gain muscle on a low-carb diet. My diet is much more low-carb than yours is and I've been steadily increasing the weight I can lift and the speed/intensity I can elliptical. (However, I am the opposite of you in that I gain weight of any sort easily.)

You might look into r/gainit if you're interested in building muscle.
posted by callmejay at 10:11 AM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Drink a glass (or two!) of an alcoholic beverage every day. Alcohol has almost as many calories in it as fat (per gram). There are some other possible benefits to drinking alcohol for someone in your situation (and by that I mean someone trying to gain body fat), but I'm not a nutritionist and don't want to hand you misinformation.

The recommendations to add oil and other fat-dense stuff to your existing foods sounds like super-good advice, and what I would definitely do if I were in your shoes.

You may want to rethink your conception of gaining "healthily". You gain weight in an unhealthy way by
1) gaining it too fast for your body to deal with it properly
2) gaining it without the necessary attendant nutrients (the state that David Cross is amazed by when he talks about people being both fat and malnourished).

You aren't in danger of either of those. Unless someone wants to step in here with some conflicting science, here's the bottom line:

Don't eat things that make you feel bad. Eat all of the other things.

When you notice that you're feeling bad, that's a sign that you need to change your eating habits. But if your body is okay with you eating cheeseburgers every day, then it's okay. The thing that makes cheeseburgers (and other unhealthy foods) "bad" for you is their caloric density (and sometimes lack of nutrients), which is actually the very thing you are looking for. So open things up a little on this diet; eat what you want. Avoid the things that you find out make you feel bad. But completely go for broke on the "unhealthy" things that your body doesn't react poorly to.

If I were in your shoes I would also probably be reading bodybuilding boards (which it sounds like you've already been doing). They aren't doctors, but they are living through what you're trying to accomplish, and that makes their experience valuable.
posted by Poppa Bear at 10:58 AM on November 19, 2012

Drink a glass (or two!) of an alcoholic beverage every day. Alcohol has almost as many calories in it as fat (per gram).

Note that ethanol makes up a small fraction of the volume of typical alcoholic beverages. Most of the calories in beer, for example, do not come from alcohol. Also note that ethanol is toxic in the quantities you'd need for it to contribute significantly to dietary intake. So drinking alcohol to increase dietary calories is neither here nor there. Beer will contribute to calorie intake, because beer is essentially liquid bread. But again, non-trivial daily drinking is kind of a slippery slope and not super-great for your health.
posted by Nomyte at 11:39 AM on November 19, 2012

Agreed, most of the calories in beer do not come from alcohol. But most alcoholic drinks do have a significant caloric payload. Just like other calorie-heavy drinks, it tends to be taken by the body without contributing much to the feeling of being "filled up".

non-trivial daily drinking is kind of a slippery slope

I think that depends on the person, both the statement's veracity and the meaning of "non-trivial". I hope griphus knows which camp he sits in. If not, I sincerely apologize for encouraging him in a risky behavior.

not super-great for your health

Huh. Well, what I've read on the subject firmly suggests the opposite. I suppose I'll have to leave it to griphus to decide if it's worth a Google.
posted by Poppa Bear at 11:54 AM on November 19, 2012

As someone else trying to up their daily calories, I encourage you to join me in trying to eat six times a day minimum.

Avocado is a great plus. Have guacamole every time you have tacos. Nuts are great for extra calories, particularly macadamia nuts.

Gluten-free pasta is a waste of stomach space. It's hugely popular because people with celiac generally want something that's high-volume and relatively low calorie, but for people like you and me it's a terrible choice and you shouldn't rely on it as a staple. Rice is also kind of a waste.

I seem to recall that you have ruled out beans/chickpeas/etc., which makes this a bit more difficult for you than it is for me.

I have tahini sauce or a coconut milk curry sauce on every serving of vegetables I eat. Almond butter with every apple.

Also, more dark chocolate if it doesn't upset your stomach.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:08 PM on November 19, 2012

It sounds like you need to eat more healthy calorie dense foods, since you get full quickly. Here are some that I eat when I want to gain a little weight. I snack on these instead of having something lighter.

-Walnuts, pecans, peanuts, and almonds. There's something like 200 calories per quarter cup. You can get huge bags of these at Costco. Be careful with this. I basically have an iron stomach and overeating nuts is the one thing that will make me sick.
-Trail mix. Buy the 10 lb bag of fruit and nut trail mix at Costco and snack on it all day. I gained about 5 lbs this way.
-Avocados. Half a medium avocado is about 130 calories. Eat a whole one with some salt and lemon juice or add it to your smoothie or burgers.
-Peanut/nut butters. Add them to your shake or anything else you're eating.
-Eggs! They're only 70 calories each but they contain a lot of protein and essential vitamins and minerals. Boil several ahead of time, eat one or two a day.
-Hummus. About 200 calories per half cup. Garbanzo beans, tahini/peanut butter, garlic, olive oil, salt, lemon juice. Blend and eat with carrots and bell peppers.
posted by rhythm and booze at 12:11 PM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

you can't gain muscle without exercise

if you just eat a caloric excess, you'll add body fat (not necessarily a bad thing). To build muscle mass, you need to stress your muscles so they'll adapt; that is, exercise.

You can gain muscle without exercise, although it's certainly not the optimal way to do so. Weight gain always involves some amount of lean mass and some amount of fat, with the proportion of the two being controlled by hormones, diet composition, and exercise.

See this study, for instance, in which all participants were overfed by the same amount for 8 weeks but with varying amounts of protein. The group that got 5% of their calories from protein gained 3.16 kg, over 90% of which was fat. The group that got 25% of their calories from protein gained 6.51 kg, only around half of which was fat.

So increased dietary protein is conducive to greater total weight gain during overfeeding, as well as favoring lean mass gain even in the absence of exercise, which is going to be "healthier" in almost any context.

Protein is the most satiating macronutrient, however, so consuming large amounts of it in the form of whole foods can be counter-productive to weight gain in that sense. For that reason, protein powders can be handy. Other than that, whole milk is useful (it conflicts with your low-carb requirement, but your diet as described does not sound low-carb), as is natural peanut butter and fatty cuts of meat. Ultimately you're going to need to log your food and adjust your intake based on the scale, aiming for a modest increase in weight each week. It will probably take some experimentation to find things you can eat a lot of. Exercise can be useful in that it can stimulate appetite and further shift the balance towards lean mass, as well as being beneficial for other reasons.

(By way of qualifications, I intentionally added 50 lbs. to my previously thin frame, but it took a lot of effort, hard training, and about 2.5 years.)
posted by ludwig_van at 12:14 PM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Why don't you eat beans, chickpeas, etc.? Do they bother your digestive system? If you can manage them, they are among the lower-stress ways to add protein and calories. Socca and lentil crackers are lifesavers for me.

Smoothies with banana/nut or coconut milk/lactose-free whey protein or vegan protein are another thing to consider, if you can drink smoothies.

Swapping lower-sugar fruit juices for water, tea, etc., may help some.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:42 PM on November 19, 2012

How about adding more carbs in the form of potatoes and other root vegetables.
posted by vespabelle at 12:52 PM on November 19, 2012

Bingo. I am borderline underweight.

I am underweight according to whatever insane metrics doctors like to use, and I'm fine. If you're having stamina/weakness issues, exercise and added healthy fats is a good idea, but I don't think that adding fat will add to your stamina.

Of course, I am not a doctor, nor am I your doctor, so take all this with a grain of salt. As someone who also has crazy ass digestive issues, I sympathize. I agree with the above suggestion to add root vegetables.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 12:59 PM on November 19, 2012

Count your calories. Livestrong's Daily Plate can be set up up to help you gain weight via calorie counting.
posted by srboisvert at 1:34 PM on November 19, 2012

i'd go for nuts, nut butter, dried fruit.
also, add olive oil to everything (make it good quality though)
if you can take milk, the GOMAD protocol could help you as well.
posted by thatgirld at 1:48 PM on November 19, 2012

Hey I think everyone should take Griphus and his doctor at their words and attempt to answer the question rather than telling him what Dr Internet thinks about his weight.

I have colitis, Griphus, and absolutely share your pain with struggling to gain weight. I am currently, h0owever a healthy 65kgs and 181cm. How I did it:

Like Sidhedevil, lentils are a lifesaver, hoummus is especially good with all that oil in it.

I kept a bowel of almonds beside my work desk (don't go salted unless you're drinking a tonne. It's a shame, cause obvs salted is delicious, but roasted nuts aren't bad).

Very generous with ye olde peanut butter on toast.

Lots and lots of eggs, especially at breakfast.

Unfortunately the rest probably came from dairy for me - I loves me milk.

But - and I know I run the risk of what others are doing - what really helped me a lot was exercising and protein powders. Though I was skinny starting to lift weights and having a couple of shakes a day made a big difference to my weight. I went from under 52kg to about 68kg in two years.

My stomach medication played a part - I was literally able to eat more kinds of foods - but the weights really, dramatically made a difference. I would be put off about lifting some weights - start with what you can handle, even one set of five, if you have to. Your will get better fast.
posted by smoke at 3:52 PM on November 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

Re: soy protein, I've heard/read stuff about it having negative effects on testosterone levels when eaten in the amounts found in soy-based protein supplements. Unfortunately, I can't actually find any info on that which isn't a) on bodybuilding forums, which are not exactly bastions of scientific accuracy and b) in papers in medical journal that I have a hard time deciphering. So any help on that front would be awesome.

I had this problem. I was eating a lot of tofu, and it made me a little crazy.

If you are underweight to the point that you have weakness and stamina issues, then you need to build muscle. You just have to go slow. A personal trainer or even physical therapist might be a good idea to get started.

And yeah, the best thing is to keep eating the foods that make you feel healthy, and just add in some things like good fats (nuts and whatnot). I would wager that as you start building muscle, your appetite will increase. You might also consider adding one of those nutrition shake kinds of things to your diet.
posted by gjc at 7:02 PM on November 19, 2012

When my daughter kind of lost her appetite for a while and appeared to lose a lot of weight fairly quickly (she's a very skinny 9 year old) I just added fat to everything. If you can eat old cheese and greek yogurt, choose the highest fat versions of that you can find.

Nuts, nuts and more nuts. A tip to cover off the salted/unsalted dilemma is to get a bag of each and mix them. Half salt is quite nice. (I prefer raw, but that's me.)

And avocados on everything. You can add one to your smoothie.

You can also add silken tofu to your smoothie to bulk it up. I like making a smoothie with silken tofu, soy milk, some honey and raw almonds. It's crunchy/chewy, which I like because I don't really feel like I've eaten unless I've chewed something.

You want calorie and nutrient dense food, so upping your meat intake might help. Real meat instead of cold cuts at lunch? Dips with your veggies? Yogurt or bean dips or nut butters are all calorie rich.
posted by looli at 7:02 PM on November 19, 2012

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