Jul 7, 2017
Weighty Issue
Ingrid Skoog

Gaining weight isn’t difficult. Our country’s obesity rate, currently over 30 percent, provides ample evidence of that. But when athletes want to gain weight, obesity isn’t what they have in mind.

Adding muscle mass, sometimes called “positive weight gain,” without accumulating fat in the process is much more challenging. Popular fitness magazines and Web sites often tell athletes the secret is in special supplements, protein powders, and high-energy shakes. Yet while some of these products may be helpful, they’re only a small part of the picture.

If an athlete wants to add mass to improve their sport performance, an optimal strategy involves paying careful attention to meal planning, body composition, and training demands. Healthy weight gain is a long-term goal that requires serious commitment over an extended time period, with plenty of opportunity for pitfalls along the way. But with the proper guidance, any athlete can increase their size and strength.

Calories are the currency of weight gain, and the body needs regular fueling throughout the day to support muscle growth. But this is an area in which many athletes are inconsistent, negligent, or downright lazy. The busy schedules of today’s high school and college student-athletes often provide an easy excuse for going long periods of the day without taking in any calories at all, and this must be discouraged when seeking weight gain.

Nutrition planning is most effective when tailored to an individual athlete’s needs, training habits, schedule, and other unique factors. But here are some basic points of advice that can help you advise them properly:

  • Eat small meals every two to three hours throughout the day.
  • You should never feel hungry. If you do, you’ve gone too long between meals.
  • Don’t drink a lot of liquid at meals, as this fills you up faster and displaces whole food.
  • When drinking between-meal liquids, choose high-calorie shakes or healthy beverages that contain calories, such as chocolate milk, fruit juices, and vegetable juices, instead of water.
  • Start eating early–have breakfast before 9 a.m. This will allow you to take in more energy in the form of a mid-morning snack before lunch in the early afternoon.
  • Plan ahead and be prepared by having an ample supply of food available at all times.

As for the composition of meals, there is no universal secret to eating for weight gain–the standard rules of healthy food selection apply, with a greater emphasis on choosing calorie-dense options over lower-calorie “fillers.” For example, a salad of fresh veggies is very healthy, but to boost the calorie contentof a salad, a weight-gaining athlete should be encouraged to add cubed cheese, lean meat, croutons, dressing, and perhaps almonds or walnuts. Likewise, a baked potato at dinner should never be eaten plain–add fixings such as low-fat chili or refried beans, low-fat sour cream, and grated cheese.

In terms of more specific advice, guidelines vary based on the athlete’s initial body fat as determined by the body comp test. Those in the aforementioned lowest range (below eight percent for males and 16 percent for females) should focus on adding more unsaturated fats to their diet in addition to carbohydrates and protein. They should include higher-fat snacks throughout the day, such as trail mix, mixed nuts, sandwiches with mayo, and tortilla chips with guacamole.

Athletes in the middle range of body fat (eight to 15 percent for males and 16 to 24 percent for females) should increase total calorie intake mainly by upping their consumption of complex carbohydrates and lean proteins. They don’t want to take in lots of extra fat, but shouldn’t look for non-fat options either–for instance, a turkey or chicken burger on a whole wheat roll is a better choice than regular ground beef on a white roll, and great snack choices throughout the day include milkshakes, fruit smoothies, and bagels with light cream cheese.

Those with high body fat (above 20 percent for males and 25 percent for females) should receive individualized attention before actively attempting to gain weight. In most cases, they’ll want to bring their body fat into a healthier range before adding significant muscle mass.

Gaining “positive weight” is one of the most challenging goals for a competitive athlete to achieve. It involves increasing overall food intake and usually accompanies heavy strength training, so carelessness can easily result in too much fat in the daily diet or too few calories to support the high activity level. But with proper planning and regular monitoring of body comp progress, athletes can eat smart, lift hard, and get bigger.

Ingrid Skoog, MS, RD, CSSD, is a sports dietitian in Eugene, Ore., specializing in performance nutrition for collegiate and elite athletes.

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