Weight loss, or fat loss, receive a huge amount of focus in the media, and that’s not surprising considering that according to the most recent statistics for England show that the majority of adults were overweight or obese; 67% of men and 60% of women. This includes 26% of men and 29% of women being classed as obese (NHS, May 2020).
However, there are a significant number of people who are either underweight or have a desire to increase their weight, for example those who wish to increase their muscle mass.
So, if you’re in this bracket, what approach should you take in order to gain weight in a healthy way?
What I mean by gaining weight in a healthy way is that you’ll increase your weight at a slow rate, and will gain both muscle and fat (with a preference being to minimise fat gain). This isn’t how most people gain weight; most weight gain is “unhealthy” and tends to include significant increases in body fat, with a simultaneous loss of muscle tissue which a recipe for disaster in terms of long-term health.
The first thing to consider is that we are all different, which means just like weight loss, healthy weight gain requires a personalised approach.
To gain weight (fat or muscle) you generally need to be in a calorie surplus; that’s consuming more calories than you expend over a sustained period of time (a side note here; evidence has shown that it is possible to gain muscle mass in an energy deficit, but that it’s optimal to be in an energy surplus).
This means that you’ll need to know what your maintenance calorie level is, and then consume more than this amount. But how much more?
It’s best to start low and increase if you’re not seeing the weight gain you’re looking for; start by aiming for a 100-calorie surplus every day, and gradually increase this up to around 300 calories per day if you want to accelerate the weight gain. But be careful, because going too high too quickly will just end up with excessive fat gain which is probably not your goal.
Now you have an idea on how much, let’s have a look at the consistency of your diet.
For both weight loss and weight gain, your first priority should be on hitting your daily protein intake levels. Most people don’t consume enough protein (unsurprising considering that the Government recommendation is a pretty low 0.8g/kg bodyweight; ultimately the minimal amount you should consume to avoid ill health.
But who wants the minimum? You want the optimal, right?
So, aim for somewhere in the range of 1.6 – 2.2.g/kg bodyweight.
Next, aim for around 20-25% of your total calorie intake coming from fat, and make the rest of your calories up with carbohydrates.
OK, so you’ve got a good idea now on how to hit your calorie and macronutrient targets. But, there’s one factor that above and beyond all nutrition factors that is an absolute essential for healthy weight gain (specifically building muscle). And that is resistance training!
Without resistance training in your schedule, any weight gain will be fat tissue. And, more than likely, you’ll also lose your existing muscle tissue at a faster rate as you age so lifting those weights has a lot of benefits!
If you’re new to resistance training aim for three full body sessions per week, and if you’re more accustomed to training consider a routine that splits the body up into parts (e.g. upper and lower body, or certain body parts on certain days); better still, employ a coach to help you with planning your training!
There are other factors to consider, such as supplementing with creatine, however this is more of a “cherry on the top”; focus on being in a (small) calorie surplus, hitting your protein target and ensuring that you are consistently resistance training in a progressive way.