Although it is a less common problem in our society, there are people who legitimately need to GAIN weight! Many of these people actually struggle with gaining weight, even after trying to load their body with high-calorie junk food.
During my current rotation in outpatient oncology, I see patients everyday who are losing weight unintentionally. Although some patients are overweight or obese, weight loss is not the focus during cancer treatment because they’re losing BOTH fat and muscle mass. When you lose 50 pounds in a few months, you’re going to lose a significant amount of muscle, along with strength, energy, and ability to do daily tasks. The goal during cancer treatment for most people is to maintain their weight, or gain if necessary. These tips also apply to others, especially athletes or those with a high activity level.
One way people try to gain weight is just eat anything and everything they want to eat, especially all their favorite junk food – ice cream, cookies, cakes, and more. Although some people do gain weight eating pints of Ben & Jerry’s, it oftens comes with side effects – stomachaches, diarrhea, fatigue, and major blood sugar swings. There are healthier ways to gain weight, and with more calories comes the benefit of eating more NUTRIENTS to flood your cells with vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients.
It would be pretty hard to gain weight eating giant salads because your stomach would fill up with fiber pretty quickly before you could eat excess calories. Fat is the most caloric-dense macronutrient at 9 calories per gram, so focusing on high-fat foods with healthy fats is a great way to add calories without volume. Simply adding 1 tbsp of olive oil to a meal, smoothie, or salad adds 120 calories. Adding oils, nuts, butter, or other high-fat items easily adds hundreds of calories without filling you up. Other ideas include:
- Olive oil, coconut oil, butter
- Nuts & seeds
- Unsweetened shredded coconut
- Almond butter, coconut butter, other nut butters
- Full-fat coconut milk or kefir
Another way to add calories and nutrients is choosing higher calorie and starchier fruits and vegetables, such as:
When you eat a large meal at one time, you get pretty full and uncomfortable – just think about how you feel after Thanksgiving. To ease this, spread your meals out throughout the day and eat something every few hours. One great way to do this is including snacks in between meals. Some great snacks include:
- Smoothies and shakes! This is a great way to include nutrient-rich fruits (and even veggies), healthy fats, and pack tons of calories into a drink. Throw a mixture frozen fruit, coconut milk or kefir, nut butter, avocado, chia seeds, and even some spinach into your blender to make a delicious, nutrient-dense concoction.
- Yogurt or kefir bowls. Scoop out full-fat yogurt, kefir, or coconut milk, and mix in fruit, chia seeds, and nuts for a delicious snack.
- Fruit & nuts. Simple & delicious – banana and almond butter is my favorite combination.
- Eggs & avocado. This is a high-protein snack that will keep you full for a few hours. Make up a few hardboiled eggs and pack a half or whole avocado with them.
Regardless of your weight goal (loss, maintenance, or gain), it’s important to focus on NUTRIENTS rather than calories. Calories are only fuel, but it’s the vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients that keep your immune system strong, protect your cells from damage, and give you energy. If you are going through cancer treatment, or struggling with weight gain from another reason, it is possible to gain or maintain your weight with a healthy diet. Of course, you should enjoy your treats, such as ice cream, but sweets don’t have to be the main way to pack on the pounds. A dietitian can help you come up with individualized goals and provide education regarding other symptoms of cancer treatment, such as nausea, taste changes, mouth sores, and tips for survivorship after treatment.