How to Gain Weight in a Healthy Way

Por Alisa Bowman |

If your doctor has told you that you need to add a few pounds to your frame, here’s how experts say to do it safely and enjoyably.

variety of healthy foods for a story on the best foods to gain weight for older adults

It’s not something you hear people talking about a lot: the need to gain weight. Many of us spend our entire adult lives wishing we weighed less than we do. But then something can happen during our golden years. The number on the scale can start dropping, and that’s not always a cause for celebration.

Like being overweight, being underweight also poses its own set of health risks, including making it more difficult to recover from surgery or an illness. And unexplained weight loss is often a symptom of a bigger health problem. After age 70, unintentional weight loss also tends to come from muscle and bone tissue, which can increase your risk of falls and fractures.

If you're wondering why you're dropping weight - or looking to add a few pounds to your frame regardless of the reason - here's what experts have to say about unexpected weight loss and healthy weight gain. Plus, nutritionists share the best foods to gain weight for older adults.

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Why may I be losing weight?

If you’re getting thinner without trying, there are several common reasons for unexplained weight loss:

  • Loss of mobility that makes it challenging to prepare meals
  • Loneliness or depression that causes you to lose interest in eating
  • Dental problems that make it uncomfortable to eat
  • A loss of muscle and bone mass due to inactivity or malnutrition
  • Health conditions such as cancer, an overactive thyroid, type 2 diabetes or heart failure

If you unexpectedly lose more than 5% of your body weight within six to 12 months, mention it to a health care professional, says Kimberly Gomer, M.S., R.D. She is a registered dietitian based in Miami who specializes in nutrition counseling for people 50 and older.

Your health care provider can help you understand the true cause of the problem. Then, once you know why you're losing weight, you're in a better position to do something about it, Gomer says.

Recommended reading: 5 Top Questions About Age-Related Muscle Loss, Answered

What are the best foods to gain weight for older adults?

This may not be a situation you've ever found yourself in before. But safely adding weight to your frame is a combination of basic mathematics and good nutrition.

"To gain weight, you need to be in a calorie surplus," says Jordan Hill, R.D. Hill is the lead registered dietitian at Top Nutrition Coaching. That means consuming 250 to 500 more calories a day.

For overall health, you’ll ideally want to get those calories from:

  • Protein-rich foods like Greek yogurt, ground turkey, tuna, salmon and eggs to help preserve muscle mass
  • Nutrient-dense foods like veggies, fruit, beans and whole grains to protect overall health and prevent vitamin and mineral deficiencies
  • Healthy fats like avocado, nuts, seeds and olive oil to boost your calorie intake without increasing your risk for disease

What eating strategies should I try to safely gain weight?

Making eating more enjoyable makes it easier to work up more of an appetite, says Hill. Both Hill and Gomer offer their advice for including all of the foods that we just mentioned, even if you can’t or don’t want to spend much time in the kitchen.

Prepare meals that you want to eat. In other words, don’t make them so healthy that they bore you or make you want to toss them in the trash.

"It's okay to add a little butter, salt, mayo or some cheese if that makes it palatable for you," Gomer says. Similarly, it's okay to indulge in some of your favorite treats (you are trying to gain weight, after all) as long as you also include more nutritious options.

Redefine your concept of dinner. It doesn’t have to be an elaborate meal that dirties up your entire kitchen. Instead, simplify your nightly meals with these nutritious options:

  • Tuna packets with crackers, cut apples and baby carrots
  • Sandwiches made from whole-grain bread and tuna, chicken or egg salad
  • Greek yogurt or cottage cheese topped with granola, walnuts and berries
  • Store-bought black bean burgers on a whole grain bun with lettuce, tomato and pickle, with a side of celery and store-bought hummus
  • Scrambled eggs or an omelet
  • Tacos made from ground turkey, canned black beans and canned tomato with taco seasoning. Serve with tortillas, pre-shredded bagged lettuce and pre-grated cheese.

Add healthy fats to your go-to meals. If you already know what you like to eat on the regular, just doctor it up a bit to add more calories. Drizzle olive oil over the cooked protein or grains in that frozen dinner. Add flax or chia seeds to oatmeal, yogurt and smoothies. Top hot meals with shredded cheese. Spread avocado on toast.

“If you add little bits to your snacks and meals every time you eat, that could very well add an additional 50 to 100 calories each time,” says Hill.

Drink some of your meals. If chewing certain foods is uncomfortable, toss the following in a blender for a protein, calorie and nutrient-dense meal, says Gomer.

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  • Fruit (berries, banana)
  • Greens like spinach
  • Greek yogurt
  • Almond butter, peanut butter or avocado
  • Dairy or non-dairy milk base
  • Protein powder (optional)
  • Greens powder (optional)

If you can’t prepare a smoothie at home, stock up on store-bought protein shakes, smoothies and nutrition drinks, suggests Hill.

Shop for nutritious snack foods. Let the food companies do the prep work for you. “These options are all relatively low lift and require little-to-no-prep,” says Hill. Consider stocking your kitchen with these healthy nibbles:

  • Baby carrots
  • Celery sticks
  • Store-chopped fruit
  • String cheese
  • Individual yogurts or cottage cheese packs
  • Premade hardboiled eggs
  • Peanut butter
  • Whole grain crackers
  • Jerky sticks

Put your small kitchen appliances to work. If preparing meals for one feels like a chore to you, use a slow or instant cooker to assemble soups, chilis and other big meals in batches. Eat one serving when it’s hot. Then freeze the rest for later, so it’s ready for you to eat with no further chopping or clean-up.

And if you have an air fryer, Gomer says it gives you a delicious and mess-free way to cook salmon, sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts. Make sure to use the pre-cut parchment designed for air fryers for easy cleanup.

Recommended reading: 8 Air Fryer Foods That Will Surprise You and Make Your Taste Buds Happy
7 Cosas que no sabía que puede hacer su Instant Pot

See our sources:
Unintentional weight loss: American Family Physician and NHS
The dangers of being underweight: Orthopedic Research and Reviews
Healthy ways to gain weight: National Health Service
Maintaining a healthy weight: National Institute on Aging

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