With the year coming to a close and most Americans making resolutions to become fitter and leaner in the new year, gaining weight is most likely at the top of people’s what-not-to-do lists. But putting on muscle can be a real challenge — and it’s just as big of a nutrition concern as losing weight can be. And unfortunately for those trying to gain weight, it’s not as simple as eating double cheeseburgers for dinner and scarfing down pints of ice cream. Quality and nutrient-dense calories are just as important as they are for those trying to lose weight — especially when it comes to building muscle, optimizing health, and reducing the risk of diseases like cardiovascular disease. To gain lean muscle mass and improve health at the same time, try following these general rules:
1. Load up on healthy but calorie-dense foods
Not all calorie-dense foods are unhealthy: nuts (and nut butters), seeds, and avocados are high in monounsaturated fats, which reduce cholesterol levels, reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and cancer and help your body absorb nutrients from other foods. But because fats contribute 9 calories per gram (as opposed to protein and carbohydrate’s 4 calories), they’re an extremely efficient and timely way to consume large amounts of calories. One tablespoon of peanut butter contains 94 calories, and just 14 walnuts have 185 calories. Flaxseed oil, which boasts heart-healthy omega-3s, offers up 119 calories per tablespoon. Dried fruit is another healthy option, as long as it doesn’t contained added sweeteners or preservatives. Since fruits are largely water by volume and weight, and dried fruits are devoid of water, their serving sizes are drastically reduced — but they still contain the same amount of calories as well as fiber, vitamins and minerals. At mealtime, try quinoa and salmon, which are surprisingly high in calories. Quinoa contains 220 calories per cup, which is the same as one cup of white pasta — but with far more nutrients like fiber, protein and iron. Salmon packs almost twice as many calories as chicken — but with more protein and far more omega-3 fatty acids.
2. Drink your calories
Nutritionists often advise against drinking your calories because liquids aren’t as satiating as solid foods and because we tend to disregard the calories they do contain. Plus, sodas, smoothies and coffee beverages are often far too high in refined sugars. But it’s a different game for those trying to gain weight: because they don’t fill us up, it’s easy to down a 300-calorie drink next to a 500-calorie lunch. Just make sure your drink of choice is filled with nutrient-dense ingredients and is low in sugar. Milk or chocolate milk are good choices, as they contain an ideal ratio of protein to carbs. Fruit juices contain about 100 calories per glass; just balance the sugars with protein or healthy fats to avoid shaky blood sugar levels. Smoothies are even better, because you can add more calorie-dense ingredients like yogurt, milk, peanut butter, wheat germ, chia seeds and protein powder.
3. Eat at least every three hours
Feeding your body with a consistent stream of calories is key if you want to gain weight, especially if you’re already having trouble with weight gain. Skipping meals, or even waiting the five or six hours between breakfast and lunch or lunch and dinner, means that your body will begin to draw energy from your energy stores. Without eating, your body is in a catabolic state, which means that after glycogen (the unused form of carbohydrates that we store) is used up, muscle is the next form of fuel. This is why eating a healthy breakfast shortly after you wake up is just as key, since you’ve been fasting all night. And don’t forget to time your meals and snacks with your workout: experts believe that there’s a window of opportunity after working out during which your muscles are most receptive to protein and calories, resulting in the most efficient muscle mass gain.
4. Speaking of strength training…do it!
Even though strength training is touted as a method for weight loss, it’s still important for weight gain. To gain muscle mass, your body requires protein. But your body already uses up the majority of the protein you eat for regular physiological processes like hormone synthesis and metabolic processes. This means that you need to take in and store more protein than your body uses. If you’re strength training and not taking in more protein, your muscles will lack the amino acids they need to repair and rebuild more muscle — which means you’re actually burning muscle. Supplement your post-workout protein consumption with carbohydrates, which slow the rate of protein breakdown.
5. Eat before bed
According to a study from Maastricht University Medical Center in the Netherlands, muscle protein synthesis is relatively low during sleep; this is most likely attributable to the fact that there aren’t as many amino acids available for building muscle, says lead researcher Luc J.C. van Loon, Ph.D. But eating a snack high in protein along with some carbs may lead to gains in muscle mass: in another study, men who downed a protein shake before sleep increased muscle protein synthesis by 22%. Men’s Health advises eating a snack with about 25 grams of high-quality protein like cottage cheese and fruit, Greek yogurt, or three ounces of turkey.
6. Indulge with healthy desserts
Gaining weight doesn’t give you free reign to eat cookies, cakes, donuts and candy, but it does give you a little extra wiggle room when it comes to dessert. Truly healthy desserts take some creativity: energy bites, which are similar in taste and texture to cookie dough balls, are made with nutrient-rich ingredients like peanut or almond butter, dates, coconut flakes, flaxseed, dark chocolate and oatmeal. Or finish a meal with cookie dough dip, a stealthy concoction of chickpeas or white beans, nut butter, oats, and chocolate chips. For the purists, ice cream is also a good choice: according to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, ice cream triggers an increase in insulin, which hinders protein breakdown.