Why Can't I Gain Weight?
A big part of the people who we see in the gym, struggle with extra body weight and find the process of losing it, slow and difficult.
But there is also a flip side to this- Many trainees want to gain muscle mass and gain weight, and they are still failing to do so.
This article is intended for those exact people, who have difficulty gaining weight- The so-called “Hard gainers”
The whole problem can be summed up in one sentence: You don't eat enough.
And you're probably not tracking your food.
It is impossible to keep track of the food and not gain weight. If you calculate calories and you still don't gain weight, odds are your calculations are wrong.
Theory of weight change
“Through exercise, the muscular work done against a progressively challenging overload leads to increases in muscle mass and cross-sectional area, referred to as hypertrophy. Richard Joshua Hernandez, B.S. and Len Kravitz, Ph.D.” (1)
If you eat as much or less than your Total daily energy expenditure (TDEE), it is absolutely impossible to gain weight.
Okay, maybe not absolutely impossible, but the ONLY way you will gain weight while consuming a number of calories equal to or less than your TDEE, is water retention.
And that's not what you're looking for.
As you may already know, the TDEE is the number of calories that your body requires to MAINTAIN BODY WEIGHT.
That number depends on your gender, age, height, weight, daily activities and exercise output.
If you consume a number of calories, greater than that maintenance level, you WILL GAIN WEIGHT.
And whether your food consists of meat and broccoli or waffles and caramel cream, a weight gain will occur.
For reference, you can check our article about Calories vs. Food quality.
Why is it so difficult to gain weight?
One reason for this, is that the body has mechanisms for self-regulation of weight.
So, for example, if you consume a big number of calories at noon, your body will take care of that and appetite won't be present for quite a long time.
Everyone has a friend who cannot gain weight, regardless of what they eat. Every now and then that friend boasts about how big their lunch was, and that it ended with a sweet dessert.
A couple of hours go by and you ask them what they had for dinner. The usual response – “Well … I was not so hungry and got up from the table after the salad.”
From this we can simply conclude that one big meal does not mean that the food consumed for the day is a lot (enough to gain).
The same thing can be seen during holidays for example.
Even the hard gainers begin to overload on food and overeat, during holidays.
First, second, and third day go by.
For a while, everything goes well, but then there is a severe drop in appetite and the calorie intake decreases for the next week.
After that whole cycle, you're back to the starting point as the overall calorie intake over the week left you at little to none calories over your maintenance levels and no weight gain is observed.
If you want to gain weight, YOU MUST start watching your meals carefully and consistently.
Sometimes, the causes may be hormonal.
Hypersensitivity to leptin and insulin may cause chronic lack of appetite.
Another phenomenon that may very well explain the problem of the so-called “hard gainers” is the increase in non-intentional physical activity.
The NEAT or non-exercise activity thermogenesis, occurs when an individual increases food consumption in the short term.
What happens is that the person subconsciously increases their physical activity.
They become very energetic, start going back and forth and become to a certain extent hyperactive, having desire for physical activity.
The opposite may happen to bodybuilders, as they are constantly under a caloric deficit, towards a competition.
This of course causes them to enter the so-called lethargic mode, leading to little or none activity outside of training sessions – Decreased NEAT.
Yes, we're including Darwin in this article, as the next factor that may stop hard gainers from gaining weight is evolutionary adaptation.
Picture it this way- If you gain a big amount of weight over a short period of time, this could be very “expensive” for your body, in terms of energy.
Weight gain, quite logically increases the TDEE– number of calories required for weight maintenance.
And this is simply not optimal for the very nature of a species, that has one simple purpose – To survive.
Our species, homo sapiens, has been well around for at least 100,000 years.
For only the last 50 years of that time, however, people have had an abundance of delicious, cheap and calorie-dense food (which, by the way, is the main factor causing chronic obesity.)
So, quite simply, we have not yet had enough time to adapt and allow the energy consuming excess muscle mass to occur naturally.
This is one of the reasons as to why the hard gainers' problem exists.
Now there are many other reasons that may account for this issue, but in the end of the day it is all about adapting INDIVIDUALLY.
So, let us skip all the details and get directly to the practical tips which WILL help you gain, no matter how hard it usually is for you.
Practical tips for weight gain
With the risk of repeating a part of the introduction to this article, here is an emphasis on THE MOST IMPORTANT factor…
If you know how many calories your body burns each day, in order to maintain its bodyweight (TDEE) and then you know exactly how many calories each meal gives you, you will no longer be a hard gainer.
This of course will require tweaks, as online TDEE calculators give you an approximate number, on which you have to add on (be in a surplus), in order to gain weight.
Remember that too quick of a weight gain is not good either.
Your goal is gaining active weight – Muscle.
Fat gains should be minimized, in order to avoid having a long fat-shredding period, during which muscle mass will be burnt along with the fat.
The optimal gain would be up to 2-3 kg per month for beginner trainees and no more than 1 kg per month for intermediate and advanced trainees.
The practical tips below are especially viable, for people who don't weigh and track their food.
Fiber is an element of our nutrition that causes satiety as it slows down the emptying of the intestines.
Once in the stomach, fibers also increase their volume, which leads to a feeling of satiety.
Of course, fibers are essential for health, but if you eat excessive amounts, that may be the actual reason as to why you have it so hard when it comes to gaining.
The optimal fiber intake is 10 grams per 1000 calories of food, as more than that may cause a loss of appetite, without providing you with any additional health benefits.
“Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that the body can’t digest.
Though most carbohydrates are broken down into sugar molecules, fiber cannot be broken down into sugar molecules, and instead it passes through the body undigested.
Fiber helps regulate the body’s use of sugars, helping to keep hunger and blood sugar in check.” Harvard's school of public health. (2)
Protein is the most satiating macronutrient.
This is one of the reasons for it to be included in large quantities during a weight loss diet. Reduce the quantity, and you will be able to eat more.
However, do not go below 1 gram of protein per 1 lb. of body-weight, as this is the macronutrient which is ESSENTIAL for weight gain. Just don't over-consume it.
“. For several hours following the consumption of the preload, subjective satiety ratings were measured repeatedly. Of 14 studies that compared high protein to at least one other macronutrient, 11 found that the protein preload significantly increased subjective ratings of satiety Thomas L. Halton, Frank B. Hu, MD, PhD Department of nutrition, Harvard school of public health” (3)
Add liquid meals:
Natural juices, smoothies, milk shakes.
These meals are a good idea when you are thirsty, as they will quench your thirst and give you calories at the same time.
Milk is also an option, but it is a liquid food that has a physiological compensation for appetite, so it will satisfy your hunger more.
Drink 1-2 protein/weight gainer shakes during the day. This will allow you to get a large amount of valuable calories quickly and conveniently.
Dextrose before and after workout is also a good idea. It will give you energy for greater intensity and will provide you with extra calories.
And you may enhance your results even quicker with this muscle mass stack many of our readers really love. Get more details here.
Everybody loves sweet.
This is the easiest way for extra calories.
A Snickers or KitKat will bring you 230 kcal in less than a minute.
Another wafer or filler biscuit is also not bad idea. Keep in mind though, the balance needs to be in favor of healthy foods.
Sweet foods may be a part of your nutrition every now and then, to help you hit your calorie goals.
However, they are certainly not the optimal food to focus on when the goal is gaining active weight (muscle).
A tasty, nutrient dense food that can be added to sandwiches, certain food products and also shakes if you have a powerful blender.
Peanut butter jelly sandwiches! Or, go order proven brands online.
Do not miss it!
This is a great time to feed the body with energy, as you are literally breaking the fast.
Have a solid amount of all 3 macronutrients (Protein, carbohydrates, fat) upon breakfast, to kickstart your day.
Small meals in-between:
Add snacks here and there for more calories.
A small snack between breakfast and lunch or post-workout and dinner will certainly help you gain weight.
Add salad dressings.
You can add yoghurt-based dressing, as well as olive oil to your salads.
These products will provide your body with valuable nutrients, but will also add on to the caloric value of each salad.
Cardio is useful for our cardiovascular system, physical endurance and even nutritional distribution.
But some people sometimes overdo it.
With cardio, they burn additional calories and essentially nullify the effect of additional food.
If you do less cardio, you will be reducing your energy expenditure and without changing your diet, you will produce a larger calorie excess, which will ultimately will help you with weight gain.
I believe you are afraid of gaining excess weight.
So, is it possible to get fatter if you follow our advice and try to eat more?
Yes, but not very likely. Of course, we're only addressing hard gainers here.
So, don't worry. Even if you eat more than you think is necessary, that will only cause a small calorie surplus.
The energy from that surplus will be used by the body, to recover from training and boost protein synthesis of new muscle tissue.
Do not be afraid to eat more.
As long as everything is on track, you will gain muscles and you will look better.
The reason you are not gaining weight is that you eat too little, no matter how much you deny that.
Sounds simple, but that's the answer.
Use the tricks listed above to increase your consumption of food.
Watch for the foods rich in fiber and limit fiber intake to 10 grams per 1000 calories.
Use salad dressings to compliment your veggies with more calories and add some “junk food” to your diet.
Beware however, the junk food MUSTN'T be more than 10-15% of your total intake.
In the long run, you should make an effort to keep track of your food to make sure you have your calorie surplus every day and are not below maintenance levels.
Regularly keep track of your weight and mirror to make sure you are not overdoing it.
Last but not least:
Fat gains always accompany muscle gains but when it starts to dominate over muscle gain, that is when it is time to back off a little and relax on your calorie intake.