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Healthy, sustainable weight gain techniques

Phil Day: Superintendent Pharmacist | minute read
Aerial view of a woman using a food processor, with food on chopping board and counter.

With so many headlines and marketing campaigns focused on obesity and weight loss, it’s easy to forget that a healthy body weight goes both ways.

If you’ve spoken to a healthcare professional and think you may be underweight, help is at hand. Just as we’d manage our calorie intake for weight loss, there are ways to embrace a healthy lifestyle and gain weight sustainably.

What weight is considered a healthy weight?

To find out if you’re underweight, use the body mass index (BMI) or waist circumference ratio. The BMI is a measure, usually between 18 and 40, of your weight relative to your height. You can measure it using this calculator. Generally, a score of less than 18.5 is considered underweight.

To use the waist ratio, measure your waist and your height in cm or inches. Divide your waist measurement by your height. If the result is less than 0.35, you may be considered underweight.

What are the causes of being underweight?

There is no shame in being underweight. If you have experienced sudden and unintentional weight loss, you should speak to a doctor to check for underlying medical conditions. Causes of being underweight may include:

  • A naturally high activity level, for example, with a physical job

  • Malnutrition (not getting enough calories for the amount of exercise you do or not getting enough vitamins)

  • Going through or recovering from an eating disorder such as anorexia

  • Ongoing health problems such as thyroid issues or diabetes

  • Recovery from short-term health setbacks like Norovirus

Why might I need to gain weight?

Everybody is different and we each have our own medical history. For example, the BMI scale may not be as accurate for those with a high muscle mass, while others might feel they are “naturally thin” or have a high metabolism.

You’ll need to make changes if your weight is affecting your health. For instance, you may notice symptoms such as feeling tired all the time, anaemia (iron deficiency), low blood sugar or a compromised immune system. Women may have irregular menstrual cycles or their periods may stop altogether.

Reaching a healthy weight promotes all-round wellness, from improved fertility to better moods and regular blood pressure. If you’re getting the right nourishment, you’ll also notice healthier-looking hair, skin and nails.

How can I gain weight safely?

Healthy weight gain doesn’t mean piling on pounds through high-calorie, processed foods. You can manage it sustainably by looking to build muscle and focus on healthy eating.

Start in the kitchen

For sustainable weight gain, you should aim to add 300 to 500 extra calories per day to your diet. High-calorie foods can still be healthy foods. For example, healthy fats found in nut butters and olive oil provide extra calories without resorting to saturated fat.

Your diet still needs to be balanced, so focus on dense foods such as sweet potatoes or high-fat, high-protein snacks like peanut butter or carrot sticks and hummus.

Eat little and often

Eating several smaller meals throughout the day will stop you feeling bloated. These may include dairy products such as milkshakes for extra calories. Make sure these are health-conscious rather than sugar-loaded treats! Protein powder is great for building muscle, and can be mixed with almond or whole milk.

Add healthy snacks between meals such as granola trail mix, dried fruits and other non-processed carbs. There’s no need to force-feed yourself: look at the calorie density of food relative to its size. (For example, you’ll find far more calories in a teaspoon of almond butter than in a teaspoon of vegetables.) This is no excuse to scrimp on leafy greens, though!

Focus on strength training

Plan your workouts around muscle growth, looking at weightlifting and stretching exercises like yoga. You may want to add supplements to your diet if you are weightlifting, but always ask a dietitian if you’re not sure.

Remember, whether you’re over or under, a healthy weight includes a diet rich in vegetables, non-processed carbohydrates and protein. Coupled with 150 minutes of exercise per week, you’ll reduce your risk of heart disease and support your overall physical and mental wellbeing. The real difference goes beyond the scales – it’s all about how you feel.