There are a variety of reasons that one may need to gain weight including genetics and certain medical conditions such as fat malabsorption, cancer treatment, pregnancy and to improve athletic performance. While foods high in saturated fat may be the first things that come to mind, there are a lot of healthy options, packed with protein and healthy fats that can help you put weight on. Snacking in between meals can be a great way to start.
“As you increase your calorie intake, try to focus on nutrient-dense high-calorie choices. You can still prioritize healthy foods while gaining weight instead of falling back on options that are laden with added sugar and excessive sodium,” says Registered Dietitian Stefani Sassos, Director of the Good Housekeeping Institute Nutrition Lab. She adds, “Fat has more calories per gram than protein or carbohydrates, meaning you don’t have to eat as much from a quantity standpoint to get the same amount of calories. Nutritious fats to add to your diet to support healthy weight gain include olive oil, full-fat yogurt and milk, avocado, nut butters and fatty fish.”
Many athletes need to consume an increased number of calories per day to maintain and/or gain weight and muscle mass due to the high amount of calories burned during their sport and training. Our team of registered dietitians in the Good Housekeeping Nutrition Lab consulted with collegiate and professional athletes on some of their favorite snacks for this story.
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Much like weight loss, weight gain should be a gradual process. Before implementing any changes to your diet, especially in the case of specific medical needs for weight gain, we recommend consulting with your healthcare provider first. Below is our list of our top 10 high-calorie snack picks to help you achieve your weight goals.
Nuts, Seeds and Nut/Seed Butter
Nuts and seeds are loaded with healthy monounsaturated fats in addition to omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, protein, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. Research suggests that increased consumption of nuts and seeds is associated with a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease. While most nuts and seeds are calorically dense, macadamia nuts and pecans contain the highest number of calories with approximately 200 calories per ounce. (Compare that to 164 calories per ounce in almonds.)
A handful of nuts is the easiest snack of all, or mix and match your favorite nuts and seeds with dried fruit to create a DIY trail mix. Nut or seed butter (almond butter, cashew butter, sunflower butter, etc.) is great on toast or a bagel, with an apple, stuffed into dates or added to full-fat Greek yogurt.
Take note: Some brands contain a lot of added sugar and sodium. We recommend looking for unsalted or lightly salted nuts and seeds, and when purchasing nut and seed butters, look for brands that don’t have added sugar, sodium, hydrogenated oils or unnecessary additives.
Related: 6 of the Best Types of Nuts You Can Eat
Full-Fat Greek Yogurt
Full-fat Greek-style strained yogurt is loaded with protein, probiotics and calcium, and it also contains Vitamin B12. When compared with low-fat or skim milk yogurt, full-fat Greek yogurt is much higher in calories (220 calories vs. 90 calories) and fat (11 grams vs. 0 grams) which helps to make it a nutrient-dense treat. It does contain some saturated fat so keep an eye on that number. We recommend limiting saturated fat to around 3 grams per meal. Consuming more than the recommended daily limit of saturated fat (about 13 grams on a 2,000-calorie diet) can raise LDL cholesterol, increasing your risk of heart disease and stroke.
Greek yogurt is super versatile and can be enjoyed in sweet or savory high-calorie snacks. Keep in mind that flavored and fruit-added options can contain a lot of added sugars, so look for brands that keep it to a minimum. As a delicious nutrient-dense snack idea, try mixing full-fat Greek yogurt with oats, nut butter, nuts, coconut flakes and chia seeds to make overnight oats. Top it off with fresh or dried fruit when ready to eat.
Dried fruit contains more highly concentrated calories in a lower volume than fresh fruit. Combine dried fruit with mixed nuts — remembering that macadamia and pecans are the highest in calories at around 200 calories per ounce — and throw in some dark chocolate pieces, coconut flakes and banana chips and you’ve created a high-calorie snack. Munch on this in between meals to up your overall caloric intake or use it as a topping for full-fat Greek yogurt or add to oatmeal.
There are so many great protein powders on the market, and a lot of them are geared toward weight gain because they can be a quick and easy vehicle for adding calories. These powders are also high in protein and carbohydrates and are considered a favorite way to boost caloric intake, especially among athletes.
Protein powders are classified as dietary supplements and are subject to FDA oversight, although the industry is poorly regulated overall. We recommend looking for brands that conduct third-party testing by credible institutions such as USP, NSF, Consumer Lab, Labdoor, Informed Choice and Informed Sport to ensure quality standards.
For a nutrient-dense smoothie idea, combine full-fat chocolate milk with a banana, 2 tablespoons peanut butter (or nut butter of choice) and protein powder to create a protein-rich, high-calorie snack. You can also throw in some avocado or full-fat Greek yogurt for additional calories.
Recipe: Peanut Butter Banana Smoothie
Full-Fat Cottage Cheese
What once was relegated to the “diet” section of diner menus, cottage cheese has quickly become a trending social media star due to its versatility, rich texture and adaptable calorie content. Available in many versions from non-fat and low-fat to whole milk and double cream, it is a great protein source that can be a quick and easy on-the-go sweet or savory snack. It’s also rich in calcium and probiotics. (We recommend looking for brands that state the actual probiotic strain.)
As with the other full-fat dairy snacks on this list, the higher the overall milk fat percentage, the higher the saturated fat content. Cottage cheese can also be high in sodium, so look for brands that state “low sodium” or “reduced sodium” on the label.
Fatty fish, including salmon, mackerel, sardines, anchovies and bluefin tuna, contain higher amounts of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and are frequently associated with many health benefits. Fish is a rich source of protein, and recent studies indicate that consuming fish twice weekly can lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and death among high-risk individuals. Another recent review of multiple studies found a decreased risk of dementia with fish consumption.
Easy ways to incorporate fatty fish for weight gain include adding lox to your bagel and cream cheese or adding it as a topping on avocado toast. Another favorite is tuna salad wraps. Choose tuna packed in olive oil and boost the overall calories by adding mayo, avocado, turkey bacon and an egg. Pair it with a ranch-style dressing for added flavor and calories.
At a minimum, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend eating at least 8 ounces of fish per week on a 2,000-calorie diet and recommend those who are pregnant consume 8 to 12 ounces per week of lower-mercury fish.
Related: The 15 Healthiest Fish to Eat
Avocados can be a weight-gainer’s best friend. They are rich in unsaturated fats, containing both mono- and poly-unsaturated fats, both of which are beneficial for heart and metabolic health. They may also help to lower levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol according to research. In addition to being a nutrient-dense snack, avocados are a good source of potassium, containing 345mg in half a cup. Athletes we spoke with who were working to bulk up reported consuming one to two avocados, plain with a sprinkle of salt and fresh lime juice as an afternoon snack.
Avocado toast has also become a great vehicle for boosting caloric intake, and it is easy to prepare. Rich in omega-3 fatty acids, drizzle it with olive or avocado oil or top with smoked salmon for even more calories. Avocados can also be enjoyed as guacamole or in chocolate avocado mousse.
Related: 53 Ways to Use Avocado
Oats are a whole grain loaded with health benefits including improving gut bacteria due to containing the prebiotic beta-glucan, a soluble fiber. They have also been linked with reducing LDL (bad) cholesterol levels which can help to reduce the risk for cardiovascular disease. Oats also contain the phytochemical avenanthramide that may help to protect the heart and prevent colon cancer, although more research is needed.
Oats are considered a favorite among the athletes we consulted with because they can be a tasty vehicle for other high-calorie foods such as nuts and nut butters, granola, dried fruit, dark chocolate and full-fat yogurt. We recommend sticking with unrefined and whole oats including rolled oats, steel cut and oat groats as these are also more effective at reducing cholesterol levels.
One of our favorite high-calorie snacks is overnight oats. Oats, nut butter, chia seeds and full-fat Greek yogurt come together and turn this into a delicious way to start the day. Finish it off with high-calorie toppings such as nuts, seeds, banana chips and/or coconut flakes.
Granola is often made up of several ingredients already mentioned on this list like dried fruit, nuts, seeds and rolled oats. Add to that maple or brown rice syrup, olive or coconut oils and sometimes coconut flakes, dark chocolate and banana chips and you’ve got a lot of calories within a small portion size. According to the USDA nutrition facts, a half cup can contain 300 calories, with many brands containing almost double that.
It is a good on-the-go option because you can eat it straight out of the bag. Or mix it with your favorite milk of choice, full-fat Greek yogurt or add it as a topping to a smoothie bowl. Many brands can be high in added sugars and saturated fat so look for ones that contain whole grains, whole oats, dried real fruit, dark chocolate, nuts and seeds over a lot of added refined sugars and preservatives. Homemade granola could be your best bet!
In addition to being calorically dense, eggs contain vitamin D which is hard to get from food. They are also rich in choline which according to the American Heart Association, can help with fetal brain development along with metabolism and liver function.
Many athletes we spoke with reported starting the day off with eggs for breakfast as an easy way to get a good amount of protein and healthy fats, and you can eat a lot of them without feeling full. Eggs also pair easily with other calorically dense foods such as avocado, cheese, cream cheese and typical morning carbohydrates such as bagels, waffles and toast.
Some eggy snack ideas include egg salad sandwiches and deviled eggs which can both be prepared with mayonnaise, full-fat Greek yogurt or hummus to create a high-calorie savory treat.
Strategies for healthy weight gain
When it comes to gaining weight, the simple fact is that you have to add more calories every day. This should be done in a thoughtful manner to gain weight slowly and steadily. Be strategic and follow these four suggestions:
✔️ Include smoothies and shakes: Drinking beverages with your meals can make you feel full, so consume high-calorie beverages such as smoothies or meal replacement shakes in between meals to avoid filling up.
✔️ Eat more often: Instead of consuming two to three meals a day, try smaller more frequent meals every few hours. Smaller meals can be easier to digest leaving you feeling less full and able to eat again sooner.
✔️ Add healthy fats: Add dips, sauces and nut butter to your snacks to increase your calories. Drizzle olive oil on savory snacks such as hummus, full-fat Greek yogurt dips, baked potatoes, soups, fish and eggs. Add nut butters to smoothies, Greek yogurt and oatmeal and add as a topping to waffles and pancakes.
✔️ Avoid low-fat products: Avoid products that are advertised as diet, light, low-fat or containing fewer calories. Instead look for products that are made with full fat, whole milk, olive oil and other nutrient-dense ingredients.
The bottom line
Weight gain can be achieved through a healthy and nutritious diet. We recommend being strategic about your eating plan, eating calorically dense foods often but spaced out throughout the day.
Just remember to stay away from highly processed foods high in sugar and sodium. With any new diet or change to your healthcare regimen we recommend working with a registered dietitian or healthcare provider to determine first if weight gain is indicated for you, and how much weight gain is healthy for you and your individual needs. We also recommend working with your healthcare provider to devise a plan that is sustainable for you and allows you to gain weight within a healthy time frame.
Amy (she/her) is a registered dietitian with the Nutrition Lab at the Good Housekeeping Institute, covering nutrition- and health-related content and product testing. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Miami University of Ohio and a master’s degree in clinical nutrition from NYU. Prior to Good Housekeeping, she worked at one of the largest teaching hospitals in New York City as a cardiac transplant dietitian. She has authored numerous chapters in clinical nutrition textbooks and has also worked in PR and marketing for food company start-ups.