There are a variety of reasons why one may need to gain weight, including genetics and certain medical conditions such as fat malabsorption, cancer treatment, pregnancy, and to improve athletic performance. While foods high in saturated fat may be the first things that come to mind, there are plenty of healthy options, packed with protein and healthy fats, that can help you gain weight. Snacking between meals can be a good start.
"As you increase your caloric intake, try to focus on nutrient-dense, high-calorie choices. You can still prioritize healthy foods while gaining weight rather than resorting to options laden with added sugar and excess sodium.says a registered dietitianStephanie Sassos, Director ofInstitute for Good Housekeepingnutrition laboratory. She adds, "Fat has more calories per gram than protein or carbs, which means you don't have to quantitatively eat as much to get the same amount of calories. Nutritious fats to add to your diet to support healthy weight gain include olive oil, full-fat yogurt and milk, avocado, nut butters, and oily fish."
Many athletes need to consume an increased number of calories per day to maintain and/or gain weight and muscle mass due to the high amount of calories burned during their sport and training. Our team of registered dietitians in theGood Housekeeping Nutrition LabI consulted with college and pro athletes about some of their favorite snack foods for this story.
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Similar to losing weight, weight gain should be a gradual process. Before making any changes to your diet, especially in the case of specific medical needs for weight gain, we recommend consulting your doctor first. Below is our list of our top 10 high calorie snacks to help you reach your weight goals.
nuts, seeds and nut/seed butters
Nuts and seeds are crammed full of healthy thingsmonounsaturated fats alongside omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, protein, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. Research suggests that increased consumption of nuts and seeds is associated with areduced risk of cardiovascular disease. While most nuts and seeds are high in calories,MacadamianüsseAndPecannüssecontain the highest calorie count at about 200 calories per ounce. (Compare that to 164 calories per ounce in almonds.)
A handful of nuts is the easiest snack of them all, or mix and match your favorite nuts and seeds with dried fruit to create a DIY student mix. Nut or seed butters (almond butter, cashew butter, sunflower butter, etc.) are great on toast or a bagel, with an apple, stuffed in dates, or added to full-fat Greek yogurt.
Warning: some brands are high in added sugar and sodium. We recommend looking for unsalted or lightly salted nuts and seeds, and when shopping for nut and seed butters, look for brands that don't contain sugar, sodium, hydrogenated oils, or unnecessary additives.
RELATED:6 of the best types of nuts you can eat
Full fat Greek yogurt
Full-fat Greek-style yogurt is packed with protein, probiotics and calcium, and also contains vitamin B12. Compared to low-fat or skim milk yogurt, full-fat Greek yogurt ismuch more calories (220 calories vs. 90 calories) and fat (11 grams vs. 0 grams), which helps make it a nutrient-dense treat.It contains some saturated fat, so keep an eye on that number. We recommend limiting saturated fat to about 3 grams per meal. Consuming more than the recommended daily limit of saturated fat (about 13 gramson a 2,000 calorie diet) can increaseLDL cholesterol, which increases your risk of heart disease and stroke.
Greek yogurt is super versatile and can be enjoyed in sweet or savory high-calorie snacks. Keep in mind that flavored and fruit-infused options can have a lot of added sugar, so look for brands that keep it to a minimum. For a delicious, nutrient-dense snack idea, try mixing full-fat Greek yogurt with rolled oats, nut butters, nuts, coconut flakes, and chia seeds to make overnight oats. Top it up with fresh or dried fruit when you're ready to eat.
Dried fruit contains more highly concentrated calories in a smaller volume than fresh fruit.Combine dried fruit with mixed nuts — remember that macadamia and pecans are the most calorie-dense at around 200 calories per ounce — and throw in some dark chocolate chunks, coconut flakes, and banana chips and you've created a high-calorie snack. Eat between meals to increase your total calorie intake, or use as a topping for full-fat Greek yogurt or add to oatmeal.
There are so manygreat protein powderon the market, and many of them are geared towards weight gain because they can be a quick and easy way to add calories. These powders are also high in protein and carbohydrates and are considered a popular way to increase calorie intake, especially among athletes.
Protein powders are classified as dietary supplements and subject to FDA oversight, although the industry as a whole is poorly regulated.We recommend looking for brands that do third-party testing through credible institutionssuch asUSP,NSF,consumer lab,laboratory,Informed choice and informed sportensure quality standards.
For a nutrient-dense smoothie idea, combine full-fat chocolate milk with a banana, 2 tablespoons peanut butter (or nut butter of your choice), and protein powder to create a high-protein, high-calorie snack. You can also add some avocado or full-fat Greek yogurt for extra calories.
GET THE RECIPE: Peanut Butter Banana Smoothie
Full fat cottage cheese
Cottage cheese, once relegated to the "diet" section of menus, has quickly become a trending social media star due to its versatility, rich texture and adaptable calorie content. Available in many variants from fat-free and low-fat to whole milk and double cream,It's a great source of protein that can be a quick and easy sweet or savory on-the-go snack.It's also rich in calcium and probiotics. (We recommend looking for brands that state theactual probiotic strain.)
As with the other whole milk snacks on this list, the higher the total milk fat percentage, the higher the saturated fat content. Cottage cheese can also be high in sodium, so look for brands that say "low sodium" or "reduced sodium" on the label.
fat fish, including salmon, mackerel, sardines, anchovies and bluefin tuna contain higher amounts of heart-healthy foodsOmega-3 fatty acids and are commonly associated with many health benefits. Fish is a rich source of protein, andcurrent studiessuggest that eating fish twice a week may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and death in high-risk individuals. Another recentReview of several studiesfound a reduced risk of dementia with fish consumption.
Easy ways to use oily fish for weight gain are adding salmon to your bagel and cream cheese or adding salmon as a topping on avocado toast. Another favorite is tuna salad wraps. Go for tuna wrapped in olive oil and boost the total calories by adding mayo, avocado, turkey bacon, and an egg. Pair with ranch-style dressing for added flavor and calories.
At least theDietary Guidelines for Americansrecommend eating at least 8 ounces of fish per week on a 2,000-calorie diet and advise pregnant women to consume 8 to 12 ounces of low-mercury fish per week.
RELATED: The 15 healthiest fish to eat
Avocadoscan be a weight gainer's best friend.They are high in unsaturated fats and contain both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, both of which are beneficial for heart and metabolic health.They can also help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol levelsaccording to the research results. In addition to being a nutrient-dense snack, avocados are a good source of potassium, containing 345 mg in 1/2 cup. Athletes we spoke to who were working on bulking reported consuming one to two avocados, simply with a pinch of salt and fresh lime juice, as an afternoon snack.
Avocado toast has also become a great vehicle for boosting calorie intake, and it's easy to make. Rich in omega-3 fatty acids, drizzle with olive or avocado oil or top with smoked salmon for even more calories. Avocados can also be enjoyed asGuacamoleor in chocolate avocado mousse.
RELATED: 53 ways to use avocado
Oats is afull grainpacked with health benefits including improving gut bacteria due to the prebioticBeta-Glucan, a soluble fiber. They have also been linked to lowering LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, which may help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Oats also contain the secondary plant substanceAvenanthramidthis may help protect the heart and prevent colon cancer, although more research is needed.
Oats are a favorite among the athletes we consulted because they can be a palatable vehicle for other high-calorie foods like nuts and nut butters, granola, dried fruit, dark chocolate, and full-fat yogurt. We recommend sticking with unrefined and whole oats, including rolled, steel cut, and grits, as these are also more effectivelowering cholesterol levels.
One of our favorite high calorie snacks isOvernight-Oats. Oatmeal, nut butter, chia seeds and full-fat Greek yogurt come together for a delicious start to the day. Top it off with high-calorie toppings like nuts, seeds, banana chips, and/or coconut flakes.
Granola often consists of several ingredients already mentioned on this list, such as dried fruit, nuts, seeds, and oatmeal. Add maple syrup or brown rice syrup, olive or coconut oil, and sometimes coconut flakes, dark chocolate, and banana chips and you have itlots of calories in a small serving size.According to USDA nutritional information, half a cup can contain 300 calories, with many brands containing nearly twice that.
It's a good on-the-go option as you can eat it right out of the bag. Or mix it with your favorite milk of choice, full-fat Greek yogurt, or add it to a smoothie bowl as a topping. Many brands can be high in added sugar and saturated fat, so look for those that contain whole grains, whole-grain oats, dried real fruits, dark chocolate, nuts, and seeds rather than lots of refined sugar and preservatives.Homemade granolamight be your best bet!
Besides being high in calories,Eggs contain vitamin D, which is difficult to obtain from food.They're also high in choline, that loudAmerican Heart Association, may aid in fetal brain development along with metabolism and liver function.
Many athletes we spoke to reported that they start the day with eggs for breakfast to get a good amount of protein and healthy fats, and you can eat lots of them without feeling full. Eggs also pair well with other high-calorie foods like avocado, cheese, cream cheese, and typical morning carbs like bagels, waffles, and toast.
Some egg snack ideas include egg salad sandwiches anddeviled eggsboth of which can be made with mayonnaise, full-fat Greek yogurt, or hummus to create a high-calorie, hearty treat.
Strategies for healthy weight gain
When it comes to weight gain, the simple fact is that you need to add more calories every day. This should be done in a thoughtful manner to gain weight slowly and steadily. Be strategic and follow these four suggestions:
✔️Add to smoothies and shakes:Drinking beverages with meals can make you feel full, so consume high-calorie drinks like smoothies or meal-replacement shakes between meals to avoid overfilling.
✔️Eat more often:Instead of eating two to three meals a day, try smaller, more frequent meals every few hours. Smaller meals can be easier to digest, making you feel less full and allowing you to eat again sooner.
✔️Add healthy fats:Add dips, sauces, and nut butters to your snacks to boost your calories. Drizzle olive oil over savory snacks like hummus, full-fat Greek yogurt dips, baked potatoes, soups, fish and eggs. Add nut butters to smoothies, Greek yogurt, and oatmeal, and add them to waffles and pancakes as a topping.
✔️Avoid low-fat products:Avoid products advertised as diet, light, low-fat, or lower in calories. Instead, look for products made with full-fat, whole milk, olive oil, and other nutrient-dense ingredients.
The bottom line
Weight gain can be achieved through a healthy and nutritious diet. We recommend being strategic with your eating plan and eating high-calorie foods frequently, but spread out throughout the day.
Just remember to stay away from highly processed foods high in sugar and sodium. With any new diet or change to your health plan, we recommend working with a registered dietitian or healthcare provider to first determine if weight gain is indicated for you and how much weight gain is healthy for you and your individual needs. We also recommend working with your healthcare provider to develop a plan that is sustainable for you and will allow you to gain weight within a healthy time frame.
Amy Fischer M.S., R.D., C.D.N.
Amy (she/she) is a Registered Nutritionist with the Nutrition Lab of theInstitute for Good Housekeeping, which covers nutrition and health related content and product testing. She has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Miami University of Ohio and a master's degree in clinical nutrition from NYU. BeforeGood housekeeping, she worked at one of the largest teaching hospitals in New York City as a nutritionist for heart transplants. She has authored numerous chapters in clinical nutrition textbooks and has also worked in PR and marketing for food company start-ups.