For some people, gaining weight or adding muscle can be just as difficult as losing weight.
However, simply adding certain foods to your diet can be very effective to gain weight.
Here are 18 of the best foods to help you gain weight or add muscle, the healthy way.
1. Homemade Protein Smoothies
Drinking homemade protein smoothies can be a highly nutritious and quick way to gain weight.
It’s best to make your own smoothies, since commercial versions are often full of sugar and lack nutrients. Making your own will also allow you to vary the flavor and nutrient content.
Here are just a few tasty variations you can try. You can combine each with 2 cups (470 ml) of milk or an alternative like almond milk.
- Chocolate banana nut shake: Combine 1 banana, 1 scoop chocolate whey protein and 1 tablespoon (15 ml) peanut or other nut butter.
- Vanilla berry shake: Combine 1 cup (237 ml) of fresh or frozen mixed berries, ice, 1 cup (237 ml) high-protein natural yogurt and 1 scoop of vanilla whey protein.
- Chocolate hazelnut shake: Combine 15 ounces (444 ml) of chocolate milk with 1 scoop of chocolate whey protein, 1 tablespoon (15 ml) of hazelnut butter and 1 avocado.
- Caramel apple shake: Combine 1 sliced apple, 1 cup (237 ml) natural yogurt, 1 scoop of caramel or vanilla-flavored whey protein and 1 tablespoon (15 ml) of sugar-free caramel sauce or flavoring.
- Vanilla blueberry shake: Combine 1 cup (237 ml) fresh or frozen blueberries, 1 scoop of vanilla whey protein, 1 cup (237 ml) vanilla yogurt and sweetener if needed.
- Super green shake: Combine 1 cup (237 ml) of spinach, 1 avocado, 1 banana, 1 cup (237 ml) of pineapple and 1 scoop of unflavored or vanilla whey protein.
All of these smoothies provide around 400–600 calories, along with a high amount of protein and other important vitamins and minerals.
Bottom Line: There are many delicious protein smoothie recipes. Avoid most commercial versions, which contain sugar and aren’t as nutritious.
Milk has been used as a weight gainer or muscle builder for decades (1).
For those trying to add more muscle, milk is an excellent protein source that provides both casein and whey proteins. Research has even shown it can help you add muscle when combined with weight lifting (3, 4).
Try drinking around one or two glasses as a snack, with a meal, or before and after a workout if you are training.
Bottom Line: Drinking milk is a great way to add protein to your diet. It contains both casein and whey proteins.
Rice is a convenient, low-cost carb source to help you gain weight. Just 1 cup (165 grams) of cooked rice provides 190 calories, 43 grams of carbs and very little fat (6).
It is also fairly calorie-dense, meaning you can easily obtain a high amount of carbs and calories from a single serving. This helps you eat more food, especially if you have a poor appetite or get full quickly.
When you are on the go or in a rush, two-minute packs of microwavable rice can be easily added to other protein sources and pre-made meals.
Another popular method is to prepare a large pot of rice for the week and combine it with some proteins and healthy fats.
However, extremely large amounts may not be wise due to their potential arsenic and phytic acid content. Arsenic can cause metal toxicity and phytic acid can reduce the absorption of zinc and iron (7).
Bottom Line: Rice is a great source of carbs that are easy to consume and digest. However, some types of rice are high in arsenic.
4. Nuts and Nut Butters
Nuts and nut butters are a perfect choice if you’re looking to gain weight.
Just one small handful of almonds contains over 7 grams of protein and 18 grams of healthy fats (8).
Since they are very calorie-dense, just two handfuls per day with a meal or as a snack can quickly add hundreds of calories.
Nut butters can also be added to a variety of snacks or dishes, such as smoothies, yogurts and much more.
However, make sure you pick 100% nut butters that have only two or three ingredients and no added sugar or extra oils.
Bottom Line: Nuts and nut butters are delicious, high-calorie treats. They’re great for you and easy to add to many different snacks or recipes.
5. Red Meats
Red meats are probably one of the best muscle-building foods available.
Steak, for example, contains around 3 grams of leucine per 6 ounces. Leucine is the key amino acid your body needs to stimulate muscle protein synthesis and add new muscle tissue (9).
They also have more calories and fat than leaner meats, helping you take in extra calories and add weight.
In one study, 100 elderly women added 6 ounces (170 grams) of red meat to their diets and performed resistance training sessions six days a week for six weeks.
The women gained mass, had an 18% increase in strength and an increase in the important muscle-building hormone IGF-1 (11).
Both lean and fatty meats are a great source of protein, although fatty meat provides more calories, which can help you gain weight.
Bottom Line: Red meat is an excellent source of protein that will help you gain muscle. It contains leucine, an amino acid that helps stimulate muscle protein synthesis. The fattier the meat, the more calories you will take in.
6. Potatoes and Starches
Potatoes and other starchy foods are a very easy and cost-effective way to add in extra calories.
Try to choose one of these healthy sources of starchy carbs:
- Potatoes and sweet potatoes
- Winter root vegetables
- Beans and legumes
Not only do potatoes and other starches add carbs and calories to help you gain weight — they also increase your muscle glycogen stores.
Bottom Line: Healthy starches are a great way to get important nutrients and fiber, boost your calorie intake and increase your muscle glycogen stores.
7. Salmon and Oily Fish
Like red meat, salmon and oily fish are excellent sources of protein and important healthy fats.
Out of all the nutrients that salmon and oily fish provide, omega-3 fatty acids are among the most significant and well known.
Just one 6-ounce (170-gram) fillet of salmon provides around 350 calories and 4 grams of omega-3 fats. It also provides 34 grams of high-quality protein, helping you build muscle or gain weight (17).
Bottom Line: Salmon and other oily fish are a great source of incredibly healthy omega-3 fats. They also provide a high-quality source of protein to help you build muscle.
8. Protein Supplements
Taking protein supplements is a common strategy for athletes and bodybuilders who want to gain weight.
Some people think whey protein is unhealthy or unnatural, but this isn’t the case. Whey protein is made from dairy and has actually been shown to improve markers of health and reduce disease risk (20, 21, 22).
Whey protein may be even more important if you’re also training, since your daily protein requirements increase. Like meats and other animal products, whey protein contains all the essential amino acids to stimulate muscle growth (23, 24, 25).
You can use it before or after your workout and at any other point during the day.
Bottom Line: Protein supplements are a simple and affordable addition to your diet to help you increase your protein intake.
9. Dried Fruit
You can obtain many different types of dried fruit.
However, they have a very high sugar content and are not ideal for weight loss diets.
Nevertheless, this makes them great for gaining weight, especially since they are convenient to eat and also taste great.
Try combining some dried fruit with a protein source, such as cuts of meat or a whey protein shake. They also mix really well with nuts and natural yogurt, providing a blend of healthy fats, protein and other key nutrients.
Bottom Line: Dried fruit is packed with calories, healthy fiber and antioxidants. It’s an easy way to add nutrients and calories to your diet.
10. Whole-Grain Bread
Whole-grain breads are another good carb source to help you gain weight.
You can make some very simple, high-calorie and well-balanced meals by combining bread with protein sources such as eggs, meat and cheese.
When purchasing bread, aim for natural whole grains and seeded breads. Healthy versions, such as Ezekiel bread, are available in most grocery stores.
Bottom Line: Whole grain breads can be effective to gain weight, especially when combined with a good protein source.
Avocados are loaded with healthy fats.
Unlike other whole fruits, avocados are fairly calorie-dense and therefore a great food to help you gain weight.
Just one large avocado (200 grams) provides around 322 calories, 29 grams of fat and 17 grams of fiber (28).
Avocados are also high in vitamins, minerals and various beneficial plant compounds.
Try adding avocados to your main meals and other dishes such as omelets or sandwiches.
Bottom Line: Avocados are full of healthy fats and nutrients. They’re versatile and can be added to many different meals or eaten on their own.
12. Healthy Cereals
Healthy cereals can be an excellent source of carbs, calories and healthy nutrients.
While you should avoid processed, high-sugar cereals, healthier forms like oatmeal can be a great carb source to add to your diet.
Grain-based cereals and oats also contain beneficial nutrients like fiber and healthy antioxidants (29).
When purchasing cereals, focus on these healthy choices:
Make sure to read the label and avoid cereals with refined grains or added sugar.
Bottom Line: Eating cereal can be a great way to gain weight and consume more fiber. However, stick to healthier forms such as oatmeal.
13. Cereal Bars
Some of the healthier cereal bars on the market can be a great snack when you are on the go.
They are also a good choice before or after a training session, since they tend to contain a mix of slow- and fast-digesting carbs.
As with cereals, try to stick to bars made from healthy whole grains. You can also find bars that contain other healthy ingredients, such as dried fruits, nuts or seeds.
As a snack or meal on the go, try combining a cereal bar with other protein sources, such as natural yogurt, boiled eggs, cold cuts of meat or a protein shake.
Bottom Line: Stick to cereal bars that have whole grains and other healthy ingredients such as dried fruit and nuts.
14. Dark Chocolate
High-quality dark chocolate provides a ton of antioxidants and health benefits.
Most people recommend getting dark chocolate with a cocoa content of 70% or more.
Like other high-fat foods, dark chocolate has a very high calorie density. This means it’s very easy to obtain many calories from it.
Bottom Line: Dark chocolate is packed with antioxidants and other nutrients, along with plenty of calories to help you gain weight.
Cheese has been a staple food for centuries.
Like dark chocolate, it is high in calories and fats. If you eat it in larger quantities, it is also a very good source of protein (31).
Since cheese is incredibly tasty, you can add it to most dishes and easily add several hundred extra calories.
Bottom Line: Cheese is a very good source of protein and is also rich in healthy fats. Add it to meals if you need a calorie and flavor boost.
16. Whole Eggs
Eggs are one of the healthiest muscle-building foods on the planet. They provide a great combination of high-quality proteins and healthy fats.
It’s also very important to eat the whole egg, despite the old and incorrect myths about their links to heart disease.
In fact, almost all of the beneficial nutrients in eggs are found in the yolk.
As long as you do not have an intolerance to eggs, there is really no need to limit your egg consumption. You can easily eat three eggs per day if you want.
In fact, many athletes or bodybuilders will eat six or more per day.
Bottom Line: Eggs are one of the best foods for building muscle. There’s no limit to the number you should eat in a day, and they’re full of nutrients.
17. Full-Fat Yogurt
Full-fat yogurt is another healthy and convenient snack. It has a great nutritional profile, including a well-balanced mix of protein, carbs and fat.
There are numerous snacks and healthy weight gaining recipes based on yogurt. Here are a few:
- Yogurt and fruit: Combine 1–2 cups of yogurt with fresh or dried fruit. You can also add nuts, seeds, honey, granola or coconut flakes.
- Chocolate peanut butter pudding: Mix 1–2 cups of yogurt with 100% cocoa powder, peanut or any nut butter and a sweetener such as stevia. You can also add a scoop of whey if you are trying to add extra protein.
- Yogurt parfait: Combine 1–2 cups of yogurt with granola and mixed berries in layers to create a tasty and well-balanced breakfast or healthy snack.
- Smoothies: Yogurt is an excellent addition to virtually any smoothie to increase the protein content and give it a more creamy, milkshake-like thickness.
Bottom Line: Full-fat yogurt is another ingredient that can help you add healthy fats and protein to your diet. It’s great on its own, or as an ingredient that works in many dishes.
18. Healthy Fats and Oils
Healthy fats and oils are some of the most calorie–dense foods on the planet.
Simply adding a tablespoon (15 ml) of oil to sauces, salads and during cooking can quickly add 135 calories.
Bottom Line: It’s important to include healthy fats and oils in your diet, particularly if you’re trying to gain weight. Avoid processed vegetable oils and stick to healthy oils such as olive, avocado and coconut oil.
Take Home Message
The secret behind gaining weight is consistently eating more calories than you need.
Lifting weight is important too, so that the additional calories can be used to build muscle instead of just adding fat.
Incorporate the foods on this list into meals and meal plans that you enjoy and can stick with over the long term.