I was once part of an online discussion where a guy wanted advice on gaining weight. He had dramatically increased the amount of food he was eating and gained 20 pounds of lean mass as a result.
But he’d hit a wall.
He’d stopped gaining weight and he truly couldn’t force himself to eat more. It was clear from the advice flooding in that people really weren’t really listening to this man’s plight.
“You gotta eat everything in sight, bro.”
“Eat a ton of peanut butter at every meal on top of what you’re eating.”
“Also, fit in six more eggs at breakfast.”
He had already told them that he physically could not fit in more food. What this man needed was a new strategy, but all the advice given was just about more food.
So if you've ever been frustrated by chants of “MORE food, bro!”, then my under-muscled brother, this post is for you.
The skinny guy's challenge
If you're a skinny guy, there's a reason for your lack of mass. Even though it probably doesn't feel like it, your appetite isn't big enough to allow you to naturally eat above your maintenance calories and gain weight.
And there isn't anything wrong with that – it can actually be a good thing.
You probably won't have to worry about getting too fat and you'll get to have a lot more fun with your diet than naturally heavy guys.
But don't fall into the trap of believing you have a supercharged metabolism that allows you to burn 5,000 calories a day.
You just have to accept that you're eating a lot less than you think.
Once you've made peace with that, the next challenge you'll face is the uncomfortable amount of food that gaining weight requires you to eat.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of guys out there dreading the next meal they have to force down.
But bodybuilding is supposed to enhance your life, not ruin it. So I'm not going to tell you to simply “man up” and eat more.
Instead, I'm going to lay out how you identify the habits that are killing your appetite and consume more calories without feeling miserable.
Ineffective weight gain methods
Underweight guys tend to employ one of two weight gain approaches that are equally ineffective for men with smaller appetites.
Eating too clean
Once they decide to start gaining weight, they proceed to the internet and are instantly engulfed by the realm of “clean eating”.
Fitness gurus (and wannabes) love to tell us that anything outside of whatever they define as the “perfect diet” will leave us obese and riddled with diabetes and heart disease.
So of course, you embark on a mission to clean up your diet to a degree that will make your planking Yoda proud.
But in the process, you end up drastically reducing your caloric intake.
Dietary practices that praise eating “clean” are great for overall health, but can be counterproductive for gaining weight, especially if you're already battling with a small appetite.
Eating huge meals
Before they start making an effort to put on weight, most skinny guys will eat a lot at one sitting and then proudly proclaim, “I can eat anything I want and not gain weight!”
And it's absolutely true, because they feast so infrequently that their overall caloric intake is very much average.
Eating one big fast food meal per day or gorging at a family cookout isn't going to lead to weight gain.
Then, when said skinny guy starts trying to gain, it isn't surprising that this common habit is never corrected because it's so strongly enforced by fellow bodybuilders.
Most guys in the gym are instructing the skinny lifters “to eat until you're stuffed” or something along those lines.
But it's not the most useful advice, considering that's what the skinny guy is already doing. He stuffs himself, feels uncomfortably full (but still proud), and then doesn't eat for the rest of the day.
Bottom Line: Gaining weight will be easier if you divert away from these approaches and find habits that support your big eating efforts.
My experience with gaining weight
While I don't have what most would consider a small appetite, I've had plenty of periods where I've needed to eat much more than I could scarf down comfortably.
Over this past winter, for example, I'd slowly worked my food intake up to just below 4,000 calories a day, taking my body weight from 175 lbs up to 200 lbs.
For someone with a decent appetite, that's fairly easy to do if you're eating delicious junk food. But I was consuming mostly eggs, meat, rice, and oatmeal.
I quickly realized that certain habits were causing me to feel too full and making me miserable.
That's when I began using the techniques below which enabled me to get in the calories I needed without burping up chunks of undigested food from my overfull belly (yeah, that really happened. Repeatedly).
Tips for gaining weight
I want you to go into this knowing that it's 100% possible for you to gain weight (barring extreme medical cases).
Hell, you may even have fun doing it based on some of these methods.
Below is every trick I've learned (and every mistake to avoid) to keep your hunger going full throttle and how to apply them practically in everyday life.
1. Eat first thing in the morning
By not taking advantage of all waking hours, you're forcing yourself to eat the same amount of food in a shorter time frame. Use your whole day to spread out your meals and feel more comfortable.
Don't lose out on precious hours that could be put to use building a muscular physique.
Make your first meal a combination of carbs and protein while keeping fat low. Not only will this ensure that you get enough meals in for the day, it's going to kickstart your appetite and make the rest of the day easier.
I can't think of any meal more delicious and less filling than cereal, which is my favorite cheat meal.
Grab yourself a mixing bowl, skim milk, and some sweet cereal and get down to business. You'll consume a ton of calories and be ready to eat again in 2 to 3 hours.
2. Eat more carbs
A lot of new bodybuilders start out by reducing carbohydrate intake. Eliminating gluten or fructose can be an effective weight-loss tool.
And with the popularity of these diets, it's no wonder that skinny guys stumble upon them.
Most carbs cause a quick spike in blood sugar, trigging a big insulin release, which overcorrects and leaves you with below baseline blood sugar levels.
This starts the cycle of craving starchy, sugary foods.
For people with small appetites, these cravings can be a huge advantage. Consuming carbs throughout the day is key to stimulating hunger.
For example, I'm ravenous an hour after eating the previously mentioned bowl of cereal and skim milk despite having consumed 500 to 1,000 calories.
I could actually probably comfortably consume 10,000 calories per day from those two foods alone.
3. Limit whole grains
Consuming fiber rich, whole grains is excellent for your health.
They help you feel full, and thus aid tremendously on a weight loss diet. When gaining weight, however, they're the exact opposite of what you need.
Switch to white rice instead of brown, kids' cereal in place of bran flakes, regular pasta versus whole wheat, and white potatoes instead of sweet.
You basically want to cut down on foods that have been labeled as a “slow carb.”
This won't win the health fanatics' seal of approval, but these methods are only temporary until you get used to eating more.
Once you build up a foundation of muscle, your body will naturally be more hungry since it'll require more calories to support your new mass.
4. Take it easy on the dietary fat
Relying on calorie dense food is the default method of gaining weight.
While it's absolutely true that fat packs more calories per gram than carbs or protein, it also has a bigger impact on satiety.
That's bad news for skinny guys.
This goes completely against the common recommendations of how to gain weight. Most guys will recommend 8 egg omelets, peanut butter sandwiches, and nuts between every meal.
But if I eat a huge omelette for breakfast, I don't even want to think about food for the next 5 hours. That's a great strategy for weight loss diets, but not conducive to gaining weight.
Keep fat to around 10 grams per meal throughout the day, but eat as much as you want at night.
5. Drink water before meals, not during
When your stomach is empty, water is allowed to move more quickly to the intestines where it's absorbed. This is exactly what you want.
When you're eating a meal, however, your stomach is shut off from the rest of the digestive tract to allow the stomach to do its thing with the food you're eating.
Adding water on top of solid food is going to increase the total volume in your stomach, meaning you'll have less room for mass-building calories.
To combat this, drink most of your water first thing in the morning or the hour before your next meal. This is the closest you're going to get to an empty stomach.
6. Liquid calories are your friend
All the common health advice tells you to eliminate all calorie-containing beverages.
But skipping calorically dense beverages can wreak havoc on your weight gain efforts.
Skim milk, Gatorade, and protein shakes do very little as far as making you feel full, but they do pack some much needed calories.
Try sipping them with and/or between meals.
Fun fact: If you're currently maintaining a constant body weight and you changed nothing else about your diet except added in 8 to 16 ounces of these liquid calories between meals, it would be enough to kickstart weight gain.
7. Skip the vegetables
One of the most common diet modifications beginners make is to step up their vegetable consumption.
While fantastic for your health, the fiber, water content, and sheer bulk coupled with extremely low calories makes them a no-no for someone with a small appetite already struggling to pack in food.
If you're working on gaining weight, you can't afford the space in your diet for these low calorie, extremely filling foods.
Best case scenario, juice your veggies. You'll still get all of the benefits without any of the fullness because you'll be separating the juice from the fiber.
You could also juice some fruit to make it taste better and get in some more carbs.
8. Eat more of your favorite foods
This is where being naturally skinny really pays off!
Thinking that eating a bodybuilder's diet means that you have to give up all the foods you love is a common misconception.
There aren't any merit badges to be earned by chewing through bland, uninspired dishes. If you like ice cream, try eating a bowl before bed every night. If you love mac n' cheese, guess what's for dinner?
The point is, you don't want to create an aversion to food if you already have trouble eating enough.
You know how many bodybuilders there are who would vomit if they even catch whiff of someone microwaving tilapia and rice?
Save the clean eating until you've added enough muscle to your frame to make a cutting cycle worth your effort.
Until then, eat calorically dense convenience foods, use condiments and toppings, and don't be afraid of frequent desserts.
9. Avoid stimulants
Stimulants are everywhere in the fitness industry. Coffee, tea, energy drinks, pre-workout supplements, and fat burners all contain ingredients that can destroy your appetite.
Eliminate or significantly restrict caffeine, nicotine, and other herbal fat burners.
Save them for when you're cutting.
I'm actually having black coffee in between most of my meals right now, but I'm eating below maintenance so the effects are much appreciated.
But even at a caloric deficit, I've found that if I over do it on the pre-workout caffeine, eating my post-workout oats and whey feels like I'm being force-fed mud.
The same thing happens when I'm bulking.
If I have too much coffee between meals, my appetite shrinks away, I get heartburn, and I usually end up missing a meal that day.
10. Don't eat until you're stuffed
I understand the logic. It's reasonable to think that taking a few extra bites will lead to quickly gaining weight.
But eating until you're totally stuffed isn't going to work if it makes you miserable.
Imagine if someone forced you to eat 5 gallons of ice cream in a sitting. You'd probably never touch the stuff again.
Forcing down huge meals messes with your appetite, both physically and mentally.
Extremely large meals take forever to digest, leading to missed meals later in the day.
If you're struggling with a moderate appetite, it won't help your cause to pack in a few hundred extra calories now only to miss an entire meal later.
11. Figure out a meal frequency that works for you
Being a slave to an unnatural, inconvenient meal frequency can kill your appetite and motivation.
Sometimes, eating six meals per day gets under my skin. Eating that often becomes a chore and there isn't much room for error.
If I'm off by an hour or two, I'll have to stay up late to get everything down that day.
The opposite is also true. I've done intermittent fasting where you eat two large meals within an 8-hour window. Not the most practical method for gaining weight if you have a small appetite.
I, for example, had to eat over 1,800 calories per meal to gain weight.
Your ideal frequency may be a little different, but I've found that four or five substantial meals is best for me to spread the load.
12. Know how much you're eating
If you ate two cheeseburgers, fries, and a large Coke for dinner last night, it doesn't automatically mean you're eating above maintenance.
While most overweight people are consuming far more than they realize, those struggling with gaining weight often aren't aware just how much they're under-eating.
The only way you're going to gain weight systematically and comfortably is to know exactly how much you're eating.
Gone are the days of notebooks and calculators to accomplish this task. I started using My Fitness Pal on my iPhone about a year ago and haven't looked back.
It's free, easy to use, and the My Fitness Pal's food database is huge and includes many grocery store brands.
13. Eat big before bed
It's only natural to assume that eating everything in front of you will lead to gaining weight.
But the problem with eating a big meal is that it can screw up your appetite for your next meal.
Well-intentioned as it may be (for the purposes of gaining weight) eating a whole pizza at lunch is likely going to ruin your appetite for the rest of the day.
You'll end up consuming less calories overall for that day. And it's how much you eat overall that counts, not at a single meal.
Work around this by eating moderate amounts during the day to keep you hungry and then pigging out on your largest meal before bed when you don't have any subsequent meals to miss.
While gaining weight is a simple formula, (take in more calories than you burn) some guys just flat out don't want to eat that much.
But if gaining muscle is the goal, eating more overall is a necessity.
If you've been in the same underweight body for years, that's actually good news. It means that you're eating at maintenance.
Now, you only need to add 500 calories per day to what you already eat and the scale should start creeping upwards.
But, you need to be eating above maintenance every single day. And that means frequent, consistent meals.
Don't go overboard by implementing all of the tips at once because you may end up gaining too much fat.
Applying just a few of these tips should get you to start gaining weight, no problem.
Keep some of these strategies in your back pocket so you always have something to fall back on when you get stuck.
Just be consistent!