Last week, I shared my own story about being underweight and how I gained healthy weight and changed my mindset. Today, I would like to share my best 15 tips, so you can start your own journey to a healthy fit body and mind.
1. Know the reasons
First of all, you need to evaluate why you lost weight in the first place. Did you want to lose weight, or was it the result of a disease or a stressful time in your life?
This is very important because the goal is also to change your outlook on fitness and nutrition. You might gain weight but still have body image issues and not feel comfortable in your body, trying to lose weight again.
It seems to me that many people lose weight in times they feel like they lost control in their life. For me, it was the pain from food and trying to get the best degree as possible to be accepted to medical school. As I felt I had lost control in life, I tried to control what I could: Food and Workouts.
If you suffer from an eating disorder like bingeing, bulimia or anorexia nervosa, you need to contact a professional first. My tips are meant as a general guideline and they worked for me. I am glad I never really developed an eating disorder and if I did, it would have been much harder to get out of it alone.
2. Get yourself support
Whatever the reason you’re underweight is, you cannot walk this road alone.
You need at least one person who can give you the emotional support you need. Whenever I felt bloated and didn’t want to eat more, my mother cheered me on and said I was already looking beautiful and that she was proud of me. That kept me going. I love her and I didn’t want to disappoint her!
I know it is hard to talk about being underweight and weight gain with other people. Most of the time people cannot understand, why you would want to gain weight when they are struggling to lose weight … This is how you will discover who your true friends are and who show you support when you need it most.
3. Set small goals
Being underweight, it is just as easy to get discouraged, as for someone who has to lose so much weight. Therefore, set yourself small goals.
For example, I had started tracking macronutrients when I started to gain weight. I decided I wanted to eat 150g of Carbohydrates by the end of the week. Every day, I would increase and eat more until I reached my goal.
Don’t expect to gain a lot of weight fast. In fact, I was afraid I would gain so much weight that I couldn’t control it. In reality, gaining weight is a slow process, just like losing weight is.
4. Reward yourself
I do not recommend to use food as a reward here because your whole day is already centered around eating more food. Reward yourself with something other than food or fitness and try not to think so much about gaining weight, how much you need to eat etc.
Start living your life again! Be so busy with trying to make your dreams come true that you don’t have time to obsess over food.
I strongly recommend that you get a check-up from your doctor.
If you have under-eaten for a long time, chances are your blood tests will show some deficiencies.
For example, my calcium and iron levels were very low. In fact, my doctor told me that my bone density had started to decrease, which is the beginning of osteoporosis. Not what you would expect for a 19-year-old young woman!
So I started supplementing with calcium and iron until I had reached a healthy body weight.
In fact, low calcium and iron levels slow down the metabolism and decrease hunger. Once I started taking the supplements, I had much more energy and felt hungry again.
6. Reverse Dieting
I highly recommend reverse dieting for anyone who wants to gain weight, while keeping fat gain minimal and increasing metabolism.
I was as low as 1000 calories at some time and my metabolism was very slow. I was not hungry and not sleeping well, being major signs of a slow metabolism.
I did not know about reverse dieting, but I utilized it intuitively. I increased my food intake slowly and let my body adapt. This helped me change my mindset and get used to the thought of gaining weight and eating more food, as well.
7. Workouts: Less is more
For the first month, I did not do any strength training.
I recommend not to lift in this phase. Of course, it depends on your starting weight and how weak your body is. As my bone density had started to decrease, I took it slowly and did mostly calisthenics exercises – strength training with my your bodyweight. A circuit of bodyweight squats, lunges, planks and push ups would be an example. I did these daily as short workouts (about 20 min). I did not do any high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and minimized cardio.
Remember, your goal is not to burn calories. Your workouts should help increase your metabolism, hunger, and minimize fat gain while building muscle.
You don’t have to work out every day, but it helped me to speed up digestion and not to feel bloated. Also, exercise increases endorphins and dopamine, resulting in a more positive mindset.
8. Free yourself from the scale
This tip is very important. In fact, I did not weigh myself for 6 months. I bought myself a beautiful pair of jeans and my goal was to fill it out. That was my measure of progress, as well as the mirror, of course.
Especially when you have first started increasing food intake, the scale will go up because of water retention. Your body is used to fewer calories, thus it needs time to adapt to the increase in carbohydrates and fats.
Give yourself time. Let your body heal and then you can work on your fitness goals. See this as a chance to start over.
Put the scale away in the basement. I was a bit lucky here, as our scale got broken. I told my mother not to buy a new one, so even if I had the urge to weigh myself, the scale wasn’t there… .
9. About counting calories/macros
I started my healthy weight gain by counting calories until I learned about the importance of macronutrients. In my opinion, it is not necessary to count and it may be beneficial for you if you have developed an eating disorder.
However, there are some benefits of counting calories or macros:
No risk of under-eating
Especially in the beginning, you will not get hungry.
To eat intuitively, you need to be able to listen to your body’s signals. As I was not able to do that, I counted calories. I did not weigh my foods, I already knew portion sizes from experience and was able to calculate the calories in my head. This way, I could make sure to be in a caloric surplus.
Once I started counting macros, I noticed that I was gaining weight, but my body would not store as much fat.
The right ratio of carbohydrates, protein and fats makes the difference. I slowly increased my carbohydrates and kept my protein and fats fairly high.
⇒ For Protein I recommend 1g/lb or 2g/kg of your goal Bodyweight.
For me, that was 58kg (at first), so I would eat 110-120g of Protein every day.
⇒ For Fats I recommend 0.4-0.55g/lb or 1g/kg of your goal Bodyweight.
I would eat around 55-58g of healthy fats every day.
When I was under-eating, I would sometimes only eat 10g of fats per day. Thus, the increase in fats helped me to restore my hormonal balance and speed up my metabolism.
Caloric surplus with healthy foods
You can certainly enjoy foods like chocolate bars, pizza and cupcakes when trying to gain weight. However, if you would like to keep the fat gain minimal, you should stick to healthy choices 80% of the time.
I made sure to eat very healthy all day. As clean foods tend to be lower in calories, I would have a higher calorie dessert in the evening. Sometimes, I would just snack on a lot of nuts, to get more fats and micronutrients as well.
Tracking your macros, you are able to fit in not-so-healthy foods but still keep a balance in your diet. I see many underweight people making the mistake of stuffing themselves with fried foods. Those foods will slow down your metabolism, as trans-fats are useless for your body and seen as toxins.
10. Frequent meals
As I mentioned above, the increase in food intake will be a challenge for your digestive system, at least for the first few weeks. You will feel bloated and have to eat although you may not feel hungry.
To decrease bloating and speed up your metabolism faster, try to eat small meals every few hours. Typically, every 2-3 hours is sufficient to give your body time to digest. Thus, instead of having 3 large meals, you will consume 6-7 smaller meals and won’t have such a hard time eating.
A sample meal plan would look like this:
- Breakfast: Oatmeal, greek yoghurt, nuts/nut butter, fruit; about 500 calories
- Snack: some nuts and fruit, 100-200 calories
- Lunch: Vegetables, brown rice, lean beef; about 400-500 calories
- Snack: Greek Yoghurt and some berries with coconut flakes on top; 200-300 calories
- Dinner: Salmon, sweet potato, big bowl of salad; 400-500 calories
- Snack: A glass of milk and a chocolate bar; 300-400 calories
If you are on-the-go all day, always have some nuts and fruit in your bag. You should not let your body starve now and stick to your meal plan.
To gain healthy weight, consistency is key! Just like for a diet… .
11. No low-fat or zero sugar
Your body needs healthy fats and some sugar to repair the damage and let the metabolism recover. If you like cheese, choose the full-fat kind.
Saturated fat itself will not increase your cholesterol unless you include unsaturated fats into your diet such as nuts and olive oil.
Ditch the zero sugar, chemical drinks and enjoy the sugary variation.
Enjoy fresh pressed orange juice, which contains a lot of sugar but just as many micronutrients to nourish your body.
Drinking your calories will be easier to digest, especially if you are not feeling hungry. There are many delicious recipes of smoothies, containing nut butter, chocolate, fruits, vegetables and milk. You can even throw in a serving of oatmeal to get more healthy carbohydrates.
13. High-calorie, low-volume foods
Fiber is great to keep you full longer. Thus, foods containing a lot of it are well-suited for anyone who is on a diet. However, if you are trying to gain weight, your digestion needs to get faster, so you can increase your food intake.
Thus, watch your intake of fibrous vegetables. Choose foods that are high-calorie, low-volume instead:
- Nut butters
- Dried fruit
- Fresh fruit
- Starchy vegetables like peas, potato, artichoke
- healthy oils
- flax meal
- Trail mix: a perfect snack on-the-go
14. After a month: Start lifting weights
After a month of increasing food intake, you might experience higher energy levels, better sleep, softer skin and hair and feel more emotionally balanced.
Now, you should start implementing weights into your workouts. Weight training is one of the best tools to build more muscle, increase metabolism, balance hormones, such as Insulin and lastly, prevent fat gain.
Once I started using weights again, I noticed that the extra food I was consuming was used to build muscle and increase my bone density, instead of being stored as fat.
Make sure to start slowly and work yourself up in weights. Being underweight, I had lost the majority of hard-earned muscle and had to start all over again. Don’t compare yourself to others. Your body is still in the healing process and the risk of injuries is high. Warm up properly before each workout and keep the repetitions for the exercises at 15-20.
As you gain more strength and healthy weight, you can increase the weight, while decreasing repetitions.
15. Develop a new mindset
The last tip is by far the most important. You can gain healthy weight and muscle by utilizing the tips above but if you fail to develop self-love and accept your body as it is, you are at a risk to fall back into old habits. A little trigger is all it needs to bring back the thoughts of dieting, restricting food and working out for hours. That may be a picture in a magazine, a comment of a neighbor, or a pair of jeans that doesn’t fit as you would like.
It is fine to start living a healthy lifestyle for achieving aesthetic goals. However, you should always keep in mind that a flat stomach and lean legs do not determine your happiness and success in life and how much others care about you. You should eat healthy to nourish your body, have more energy, prevent diseases like Diabetes or Cancer (to an extent) and you should work out to lift your mood, feel strong and prevent arthritis, back injuries and to improve your posture.
Make nutrition and fitness fun and see it as a way to express self-love. Other than that, unless you would like to become a personal trainer or dietician, do not center your life around it. Live your life, work hard and enjoy time off with friends and family.
And, to finish this off:
Even if you gained a few pounds too many: You know how to lose weight. You can always achieve you fitness goals by changing your workouts or diet a bit without depriving yourself or starvation. Just as my article on Weight Loss, this is meant as a general guide to gaining healthy weight. I share my personal tips.
If you have been underweight and know more tips that could be useful for others, please share in the comments!
Also, make sure to share this article, as I am sure you know people struggling with healthy weight gain.
Wish you all a wonderful day!
Deniza, is a 23 year-old medical student from Germany currently working on her doctoral thesis in cardiology.
She dealt with back pain due to scoliosis and being underweight for a long time. Researching on sports and nutritional science and what she learned in medical school helped her build a strong, pain-free body and gain healthy weight.
On her blog askdeniza.com she shares her knowledge on fitness/nutrition/health. Her goal is to encourage you to commit to your health and take action!