The types of foods you eat can make or break your weight gain diet. Weight gain foods make it easy.
They control everything from your ability to build muscle to your health and even how much you can eat in a day.
In this article we’re going to discuss the best foods to gain weight, what makes a great weight-gain food, and how you can use high-calorie foods to your advantage.
After this short read, you’ll be ready to plan your diet and make sure that every meal and day is contributing to gaining top-quality weight!
How Weight Gain Works
Weight gain is simple – but it’s neither easy nor fast.
When you take in more energy from food than you use through exercise and activity, you will gain weight. Your body will take the extra energy (which we measure in calories) and use it as a fuel source for building more muscle or – without training – fat (1).
The equation is simple:
Calories in – calories out = weight change
When the number is positive (eating more than you use), you gain weight. When it’s negative (using more than you eat), you lose weight. Obviously, a flat zero means no change in weight!
When we eat more than we use we call it calorie surplus.
This is necessary for any weight gain. It’s the energy abundance that lets your body perform essential recovery tasks on muscles and tendons, fuels the pathways to build muscle (like MTOR), and replenishes muscle energy stores after a workout.
This means one simple thing: you need to consistently consume more energy from food than you use to gain weight. We’re talking week by week, not just over one day, and this is the only way you’re going to gain muscle mass.
High calorie foods – also called weight gain foods – are great because they make it easier.
Remember that everyone’s calorie needs are different. When we discuss which foods you should eat to gain weight, it’s about your personal needs. 3000 calories isn’t a lot if you need 4000 to gain weight – always focus on your own needs and don’t worry about what other people are eating.
You should be eating to shift the number on the bar and the scales. If those things aren’t happening, you’re not eating enough – even if it’s 5000 calories a day.
Food Sources and Quality: What are you Gaining?
High-calorie foods are important if you’re struggling to gain weight but it’s not just about calories.
While calorie balance adjusts your weight, what you eat and how you train determines what that weight is made up of.
Are you gaining lean, high-quality muscle mass? Or are you just gaining fat?
The balance between these two results is made up in the quality of your food choices – the protein content and nutrient-density – as well as your exercise and activity levels.
This is why we’re looking for the best foods to gain weight, not just the highest calorie foods. There is a difference and getting the right source for your calories is the difference between getting jacked and gaining unnecessary fat while bulking up.
What Makes a Great Weight-Gain Food?
Calorie Content: Energy to Grow
No matter what, you need foods that can provide you with a ton of calories.
This doesn’t just mean high-calorie foods on paper. 100 calories of chicken breast and rice are different volumes of food: they take up a different amount of space. Some foods are more satiating than others – they make you fuller.
Weight gain foods have to combine both ends of this spectrum. High-protein foods are often high-satiety, so you can’t just eat chicken and rice, and sometimes you need foods that are rich in calories but don’t fill you up.
Energy balance and calorie surplus are always the priority, but that’s only step one!
Protein: You Are What You Eat
If you’re not eating enough protein, your body is going to be left at a deficit. It’s the only truly essential macronutrient and it’s the most important nutrient for muscle-building.
Your muscles and tendons are made of proteins and the more you eat, the more resources your body has to repair and grow them. If you can combine proper calorie and protein intake, you will gain muscle mass.
Protein and calories when combined activate the MTOR pathway after exercise: the main muscle-building system in the body. The combination of exercise-stimulus with an abundance of energy and protein-resources is how your body decides to build more muscle.
This combination will also strengthen tendons through tendon remodelling, where proteins are used to build collagen. At a lower level, they also help reinforce bones, support skin health, and protect your other connective tissues (like cartilage, bursae, and the joint capsule itself).
Get into the habit of prioritising protein – both when picking foods to gain weight and trying to improve the health of your diet. It’s a great way to support your results in any sport, activity, or exercise (2).
Carbohydrates: The Muscle-Building Fuel Source
Carbs are the body’s main energy source – and especially short-term energy.
You can eat carbs and turn them into muscle-energy within 12-24 hours, completely stocking your muscles and liver. This glycogen is the main fuel for higher-intensity exercise like weight training, sprinting, and other explosive movement.
This is key for gaining weight because we want to perform high-quality training that leans on carb metabolism. This is one of the most important ways of building muscle mass, strength, and improving your gym or field performance.
Carbs also seem to help with the MTOR pathway we mentioned above. If you cut carbs out of your diet – like a ketogenic diet – you will reduce your ability to synthesize new muscle proteins. Keep carb intake high and focus on quality.
A lot of high-quality high-calorie foods to gain weight are carbs because they’re rich in a range of nutrients, you can eat a lot of them throughout the day, and they directly fuel exercise.
Fats: High-Calorie Hormone Support
Fats are the highest calorie food group at 9 calories per gram.
However, unlike carbs, they’re not directly tied into muscle gains and healthy weight gain. You don’t want to rely too heavily on fats for your calories, since they can be quite heavy in the digestive system and will push carbs and proteins out of your diet.
We use fats for hormonal health and the occasional top-up of calories. Some fat sources are also great because they overlap with proteins – like fatty fish, yoghurt, and cheeses.
You need good fat sources, not just lots of them. We select fats for quality because these support metabolic and heart health, giving you the best health effects without taking up too many of your daily calories.
Fats are great when you’re struggling to reach your daily calorie intake, but they should not be your main focus.
Micronutrients: Nutrient-Density Is King
Nutrient-density refers to how many vitamins and minerals you’ll get from a certain amount of calories in a food.
For example, broccoli is very nutrient dense because it offers many vitamins and minerals while containing very little calorie-energy. These are great for any diet because they help you reach a healthy vitamin and mineral intake without taking up important calorie “space” in your day of eating.
When you’re eating for weight gain, nutrient density is an important factor. One way of handling this is to make sure that every meal contains nutrient-dense fruit and veg, while another is even simpler: eat healthy, then eat more.
You can eat a normal person’s healthy diet and then add more lower-density foods on top. A healthy salmon and broccoli is a great place to start – then you add a bunch of roasted potatoes or shrimp-fried rice.
The idea is to add calorie-density to nutrient-density. You’ve got plenty of calories in a day and eating lower-nutrient-density foods will not undo the important health role of nutrient-dense foods!
Some foods will marry the two and be rich in both calories and nutrients. Foods like beans are a great example, as well as some cheese and nuts/seeds.
What to Eat to Gain Weight: Managing the Reality of Weight-Gain Foods
One thing most people overlook when trying to gain weight is appetite.
You need to manage your appetite. Satiating foods can be healthy but the last thing you want is to feel full without getting to your daily calorie needs. Keeping appetite up and managing your fullness is the key to making weight-gain feel comfortable.
Eating calorie-dense foods is one way to improve your management of these factors. It’s also important to let go of the need to only eat “healthy” foods (like vegetables) because your goals demand more calories, more protein, and it’s easy to hamstring your own weight gain.
Eating is about your needs so you’re going to have to prioritize your calories and protein.
Best Foods for Weight Gain
A classic for high-quality muscle and weight gain.
Red meats are packed with protein and a wide range of muscle-supporting vitamins and minerals like zinc and B vitamins. They’re higher in calories than poultry and are amazingly versatile with different cuts.
Ground beef is one of the easiest foods to cook, add to meals, and use to gain weight.
2. Chicken thighs and other poultry
One of the healthy foods to gain weight, fattier cuts like chicken and turkey thighs or wings take the high protein content of chicken breast but with additional calories.
They’re also likely to taste better if you’re willing to put in the extra cooking time.
Switch from super-lean to fatty and you’ll get more calories for less money. A win-win.
3. Fatty fish
Fatty fish like salmon and halibut are rich in high-quality fats that add calories to the normal fish nutritional profile.
These also happen to be omega-3 fats – some of the most important health-boosting fats around.
You’re not going to get as many calories as you would from red meat, but they’re high quality and lower-satiety so you can eat a significant amount of fish.
Yoghurt is a great source of protein with a huge amount of probiotics to support gut health, making it one of the best healthy foods to gain weight.
Natural, Greek style yoghurt is a great way to boost your protein intake and makes a great snack. Combine it with dark chocolate, nuts, seeds, berries, and honey.
5. Cultured dairy (e.g. cottage cheese)
Cottage cheese and tvorog are rich in protein can be a great choice for weight gain.
They’re not as high in calories as hard cheeses like Emmental but they’re also easy to eat in higher quantities. They’re low-satiety, packed with protein and fats, and super convenient.
Try experimenting with different types of cultured dairy (consider things like high-quality milks and kefir) to boost your calorie intake.
Other seafood, from crustaceans to molluscs, can be a great source of protein, fats, and calories, making it to the list of foods to eat to gain weight.
They’re rich in vitamins and minerals, just like fish, while offering great variety and cooking versatility. They can be a little difficult to get into if you’re unfamiliar but offer great culinary and nutritional benefits!
Get comfortable with fattier meats. Gammon is one great example of a non-lean meat that is delicious and combines well with foods like turkey to provide a great nutritional profile.
Lamb – like beef and gammon – is a fattier cut that promises weight gain through a combination of fats and proteins.
It’s a versatile and delicious food that is going to provide one more quality meat to help you pack on high-quality mass.
Venison is an underrated game-meat from deer that provides a great alternative to beef.
If you can get venison, elk, or other game then you absolutely should. These are high-quality protein sources packed with good fats and – when hunted wild – offer an amazing all-round nutrition profile.
10. (Some) Beans
Some beans are great sources of protein and calories, making them great foods to help gain weight.
Mung beans and black beans, in particular, are great for maintaining high protein and carb intake. Others, mentioned below, are more on the carb side of things – but they are all packed with vitamins and minerals.
These are classics for better health and wellbeing.
Oats are a wholegrain, packed with quality vitamins and minerals, as well as top-quality starches. They’re a timeless food for getting a high-quality breakfast.
When you’re trying to gain weight, combine oats with higher-calorie toppings: berries, chocolate, honey, or nuts and seeds. It’s a timeless staple for healthy morning carbs and calories.
2. Breads (quality first)
High-quality wholemeal / wholegrain breads are a great choice foods to help gain weight.
Breads get a lot of criticism but are a great way to increase your calorie intake. They’re a huge part of the Western diet and – when used responsibly – can help you gain weight.
Toasted sandwiches and toast with other foods – like avocado or peanut butter – help clock in 100s of calories at a time.
White rice – and ideally sticky sushi rice – are very digestible. They’re an easy carb source when combined with other foods like chicken, salmon, or seafood.
Rice is also easy to fry up with high-calorie fattier foods like beef and seafood, as well as nutrient-dense veggies.
Kidney beans and other pulses (like chickpeas) are a great combination of both protein and carbs, offering the 2 major nutrients you need to gain mass.
These weight gain foods are a great staple that work well in a range of styles and dishes. If you can master the pulses, you’re well on your way to both amazing Mexican food and great weight gain habits.
There are a wide variety of fruits you should be eating – they provide natural sugars and fiber along with vitamins and minerals.
Bananas are a classic example of foods that make you gain weight and make a great snack with oatmeal, yoghurt, or just peanut butter.
Other high-carb fruits like blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, or other berries are a great choice. They’re packed with antioxidants and some species support better muscle growth directly.
Other fruits like apples, nectarines, pears, plums, and apricots are also great choices.
Eat a wide variety of plant foods, both fruit and veg alike.
Potatoes are all starch with some essential electrolytes, a little protein, and plenty of calorie-rich pairings.
Dishes like tuna and a baked potato are great budget options for a perfect post-workout meal. They’re providing that perfect mix of carbs and proteins mentioned above in a digestible, well-balanced meal.
7. Sweet potatoes
If you’re not into normal potatoes, sweet potatoes and yams are great choices for foods that help you gain weight.
They’re also rich in starches with more vitamin A and plenty of fiber. They also pair with roasted veg and high-protein foods easily and can be versatile ingredients for a variety of dishes.
Sweet potatoes are another great staple carb and learning to cook them well is one more step to gaining muscle mass!
Pasta is a classic athlete's food. It’s a good carb, it has thousands of possible formats with all kinds of different ingredients, and it’s easy to batch-cook.
You can make one-pot pastas with the protein and fat sources we’re discussing today, or you can prepare a whole week in advance. It’s an easy and versatile food that has gained its reputation through versatility, ease of cooking, and plenty of carbs to fuel your muscles.
An amazing source of fats and proteins, as well as being packed with high-quality vitamins and minerals.
Eggs are very digestible and bioavailable. This means you’re getting the most from each gram – both of protein and fat – that you eat.
2. Cultured dairy (e.g. Emmental and ricotta)
High-quality cheeses such as Emmental are a great source of both protein and fat. These are rich in calories, high-quality fats, and support gut health.
A moderate amount of these cheeses can really drive weight gain in classic meals like pasta.
Olive and other oils are high-quality polyunsaturated fats – they offer a healthy fat source that can be used in cooking and to top certain foods.
This is a heart-healthy way of increasing the calorie content of just about anything. Other high-quality sources include avocado oil and grass-fed butter.
Just like their oils, olives are rich in healthy fats.
They make an excellent snack if you’re trying to pack on the pounds and build strength. They can be an acquired taste, but the health benefits are great – so go acquire some taste.
Avocados are tied for the most popular high-fat vegetable along with olives. They’re a classic choice for high-fat diets because they’re vegetables and packed with vitamins and minerals.
If you’re looking for a good fat source for weight gain, avocados are a classic and go with just about anything.
6. Nuts and Nut Butters
These are the weight gain snacks. From spiced roasted peanuts to almonds to walnuts, nuts are a classic food for high-quality fats, fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
These are nutrient-dense, versatile, and super convenient. You can throw them on your yoghurt or eat them solo – both are going to provide you with high-quality calories and great nutrition.
Natural nut butters are also a great choice – especially those without added sugar (or very little). They contain all the good fats, vitamins, and minerals of nuts in a convenient high-calorie spread. They also taste delicious and go with all kinds of different foods.
Seeds are just like nuts. They’re plant foods rich in vitamins and minerals, but also plenty of healthy fats and thus calories!
Sunflower seeds are one of the best choices – packed with magnesium, zinc, and unsaturated fats.
8. Cocoa and Similar
Cocoa is great for weight gain. It’s heart-healthy, rich in tannins and theobromine, and a healthy fat source.
Dark chocolate is a great accompaniment to other high-calorie snacks (like nuts, seeds, yoghurt, and berries) and absolutely delicious. Make sure you’re going for very-high cocoa content so you’re not just eating sugar – the darker the better, for health purposes.
A lot of people can gain weight – only the smart and disciplined will gain high-quality muscle mass. It’s a slow process but it’s simple if you’re willing to keep it simple:
The results will come when you’re committed to these simple principles. The foods we’ve outlined are the best way to get a mixture of quality and surplus.
These weight gain foods will provide you with an abundance of calories, protein, high-quality energy, and the vitamins/minerals your body needs to gain weight safely and healthily. If you’re prioritizing these foods, you’re on the right track to high-quality weight gain!