Most people who get into training and looking after their nutrition are doing so in an attempt to lose weight.
But there are those who are trying to gain weight, and I find that this is particularly, but not exclusively, young men.
As with almost everyone, part of them is self-conscious about how they look, but they may also feel the need to gain some weight/muscle for health reasons, as well as athletic performance, which is the case with a lot of my own clients.
We know that training plays a huge role in muscle gain, with resistance training being the key driver in muscle growth, but we also know that in order to gain weight, we need to be eating more calories than we are expending through daily life, the body’s internal processes, and exercise.
For someone who has never been in a period where weight gain is the goal, I know it will sound silly when I say that it’s not always easy to eat enough to gain weight.
People who have felt the struggle that I’m talking about are often described as “hard-gainers”. This term can cause confusion and lead people to think that they’re simply destined to be skinny forever.
However, in my experience, these people simply tend to have higher energy outputs and lower appetites than other people.
If you’re one of these people, you know how envious people are that you can polish off 2 pizzas, a bowl of ice cream and a sharing packet of Doritos on Saturday night and not gain weight.
What they don’t see is that during the week, you had a couple of pieces of toast for breakfast 3 of the days and forgot to eat lunch a couple of days because food wasn’t even on their mind.
Also, no one, including you, sees the fact that you unconsciously increased your energy output in the days following the pizza feast. (Research shows that we tend to compensate in this way without knowing it, but some people tend to compensate more than others. Some people could eat 500 kcal too much, and spontaneously increase their energy output by 500 kcal through extra walking, taking the stairs instead of lifts, training harder, fidgetting more etc.)
Even with these issues aside, it may simply be the case that although you are eating what you think is a lot, it may still not be enough. I’ve had clients eating 3500+ kcals in order to gain a small amount of weight each month, and while it may seem great to be able to eat that much in theory, it can get to the point where you’re having to eat even when you have zero desire for food.
Trust me, I’m not complaining on behalf of hard-gainers. It can be nice to never have to worry that having a piece of cake is going to put you over your calories for the day, or to never have to fill up your plate with salad in order to keep yourself full.
But I do want to recognise that there are struggles that will pop up for those struggling to gain weight and that there are some things you can do about it:
1. Eating an Extra Meal
When you’re looking down at your third massive meal of the day and wondering how you’re going to eat it all, and that happens a few days in a row, it can cause you to dread the idea of eating, which isn’t going to be ideal for your goals, nor your relationship to food.
However, if you add in an extra meal or 2, that means having 4 or 5 smaller, less intimidating meals. Of course, you still may not be hungry at any stage during the day, but at least each meal is much easier to eat.
Whilst eating more than 3–4 meals per day hasn’t been shown to be more beneficial to muscle growth, it could be practically helpful, but also has the downside of you having to prepare extra meals, as well as having to take more periods out of your day for eating.
2. Using Liquid Calories
Solid food fills us up a lot quicker than liquids. For example, a smoothie might contain 300–400 kcal, but isn’t still really going to fill you any more than a bottle of water would. Yet, if you were to eat a chicken salad containing the same amount of calories, you’d be a lot more full.
We can use this to our advantage, and have the smoothie, or another liquid such as milk or juice, alongside our meals, giving us more calories, without having to eat more solid food.
3. Having High-Calorie Snacks
We all get busy at times, so sometimes it’s not easy to get the chance to sit down and have a meal. When you’re trying to get a lot of food in, this can lead to you having to eat even bigger meals later in the day, which will likely lead to you not eating enough for that day.
For this reason, it can be worth having some high-calorie snacks available, for you to take on the go, and allow you to still get some energy in, even when having a meal isn’t an option.
Snacking can also be useful for in between meals, as long as they don’t end up making us not hungry enough for the next meal.
The best snack I’ve found for getting extra calories in is nuts and dried fruit and my favourite is cashews and raisins.
Other examples include nut butters, seeds, rice cakes, some fruits, juices and smoothies.
4. Including Different Flavours
At a nutrition seminar that I was at last year, which was hosted by Danny Lennon of Sigma Nutrition, he spoke about the idea of the “dessert-effect”.
He got us to imagine we’d eaten 3 big burgers, and were extremely full, and that the waiter presented us with the option of a fourth burger. Of course, everyone’s instinct was to say, “No thanks, I’m too full.”
But then we had to imagine that the waiter had presented us with an ice-cream, and of course, the answer would be, “Yes, please!”. It’s strange, we would feel just as full, but this time, we somehow have the desire to eat.
He hypothesised that the reason for this is that the novelty of a new flavour is enough to bring that desire for food back, regardless of our lack of hunger.
You can use this to your advantage, by having a lot of different flavours on your plate.
Which do you think you could eat more of? The typical, bland chicken, rice and broccoli? or seasoned chicken, rice, broccoli, hot sauce, sauteed peppers and onions, and olive oil?
If you like all of those ingredients, the likelihood is that your answer in the latter as you’ll be able to eat more without becoming bored of the flavour.
5. Allowing Yourself Some “Less-Healthy” Foods
If you’ve ever eaten 3500 kcal worth of rice, chicken and veg, in one day, you know the struggle. Of course, there’s no need to restrict your food intake to those specific foods whether you’re looking to gain weight or lose it, but doing so while attempting to eat a lot can be very difficult.
Even from a health point of view, it may not be ideal to only include “healthy” foods in your diet. The amount of food needed to hit high caloric intakes can cause digestive upset due to the volume of food needing to be processed, and also can lead to the eating fatigue that we spoke about earlier.
As well as that, if you’ve decided that muscle gain is something that is needed to improve your health, if eating only “healthy” food is stopping you from eating enough to gain muscle, then you could argue it would be more healthy to include some form of “Less-healthy” food, if it meant that it allowed you to hit your energy intake target, and therefore allow to muscle gain.
Of course, I recommend keeping most of your food intake to whole foods that are typically described as healthy, including plenty of fruit, vegetables, protein sources, whole grains etc, but you’ll have to decide for yourself what percentage of your food that you allow to come from other sources.
Many say it’s a good idea to implement an 80% rule, where 80% of your food comes from typically “healthy” food, allowing the rest of it to come from “Less-Healthy” sources. I’d personally like it to be higher than that, but at the end of the day, that is going to be something that you, as an individual, will have to decide for yourself.
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