“Yeah, she has a real problem,” my friend said sarcastically about my 20-something client who, despite a herculean effort, couldn’t gain weight. Ever since she’d remembered, family and friends had called her scrawny or “string bean,” and someone had recently taken one comment way too far.
Over my three decades as a nutritionist and personal trainer, I’ve worked with numerous clients who struggled with self-esteem and health issues because they didn’t have sufficient muscle mass or otherwise weren’t as big as they wanted to be.
Here’s what often surprises clients: Many rules that apply to fat loss also work for healthy weight gain.
After all, you want to gain that weight as muscle, not fat. Ultimately those goals collide: Fat loss and healthy gain both require maintaining or building muscle while losing fat.
Whether you want to gain (smartly) or lose, you want the most nutrient-dense foods to support vigor, vitality, and a long healthy life. These 10 strategies helped this client (and numerous others) build muscle and burn fat to gain healthily.
1. Eat more frequently.
No, you don’t have to turn eating into a new hobby, but gaining smartly often requires having a meal every four hours. That might require four rather than three meals every day.
2. Do breakfast correctly.
A protein shake becomes a perfect opportunity to increase protein, healthy fats, fiber, and nutrients. Toss another serving of non-soy, nondairy protein powder and blend with avocado, leafy greens, freshly ground flaxseed, and unsweetened coconut or almond milk. Bump up your shake with higher-calorie, nutrient-dense add-ons like almond butter and cacao nibs.
3. Bring on healthy fats.
Avocado, nut butters, grass-fed beef, and coconut oil help you step up your calories without risking storing them as fat. (Fat makes you thin: Sounds oxymoronic, right?) These and other healthy fats become satiating and satisfying while working toward your goal weight.
4. Stay mindful about food intolerances.
Gluten, dairy, and other food intolerances hijack your best efforts and create inflammation, lead to miserable symptoms like headaches and fatigue, and leave you gaining weight around your midsection.
5. Don’t turn this into a high-sugar impact “opportunity.”
Just because you can devour a plate of fettuccine Alfredo without cursing your skinny jeans the next morning doesn’t mean you should. These dietary debacles pave a path for food intolerances, metabolic syndrome, and fat gain.
6. Become a sneaky-sugar sleuth.
Fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt, fat-free anything, and other so-called healthy Frankenfoods often come loaded with agave, honey, and other sweeteners that create a similar effect as real sugar and sabotage your waistline and overall health. They have no place in any health-minded person’s diet.
7. Snack responsibly.
For fat loss, I’m not a big snacking fan, but the right choices can help you gain smartly.
Skip the high-sugar-impact junk for nutrient-dense snacks like slow-roasted or dehydrated nuts and seeds, nitrate-free jerky, celery slices with almond butter, sliced avocado, kale chips, and guacamole, a protein shake, or a low-sugar-impact protein bar.
8. Get fab sleep.
Crappy sleep can do more than make you feel tired, cranky, and craving a pumpkin scone with your gargantuan dark roast. One study found even a partial night of sleeplessness could pave the way for insulin resistance, amping up your risk for obesity and type 2 diabetes.
Those are just a few of the zillion reasons to regularly prioritize seven to nine hours of solid, uninterrupted sleep.
9. Control stress levels.
Nothing good comes from being stressed out, whether that means you say something immediately regrettable or make a poor food choice. Chronically ramped-up cortisol levels break down muscle and store fat: exactly what you don’t want for healthy gains.
One meta-analysis of 300 studies found stress could also deliver a serious whammy to your immune system. Whether you choose yoga, meditation, deep breathing, or a tea date with your bestie, prioritize stress management for healthy gains.
10. Burst and lift.
Muscle becomes your metabolic Spanx that keeps you looking toned and fabulous. Healthy gains demand weight resistance. If you can swing it, hire a trainer who can customize a lifting protocol.
I’ve combined weight resistance and burst training (my other fave exercise) with my Fast Blasts, which you can knock out in eight—yep, eight—minutes a day. Grab a FREE one here.
If you’ve struggled with being skinny or otherwise needed to gain weight smartly, what strategy would you add here? Share yours on my Facebook page.