How to Gain Weight (and Muscle) With a Low Carb Diet

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How to gain weight the healthy way

Last Updated on August 3, 2020 by Michael Joseph

People usually use popular diets to lose weight, but what about if someone enjoys a particular way of eating and wishes to gain weight?

Given how most nutrition articles focus on low-carb diets for fat loss, what about using them for gaining weight?

The usual advice for weight gain is just to eat a higher amount of carbohydrates to “bulk up” but that method isn’t compatible with a diet low in carbohydrates.

In this article, we will examine how to gain weight with a low carb diet.

A Man With Salmon, Avocado and Nuts Doing a 'Thumbs Up' Motion.

The Fastest Way To Gain Weight Isn’t Necessarily the Best

First of all, wanting to know how to gain weight quickly is understandable. However, it can often subtract from gaining weight in a healthy and sustainable manner. In other words, slow and steady usually wins the race.

Ultra-high calorie bulking diets are very common and they can work very well for quick weight gain for some people. But usually, these people are extremely active bodybuilders/athletes who don’t mind gaining a little fat in addition to the muscle.

With this kind of diet, people tend to load up on hundreds of extra calories/grams of carbohydrates per day. While this method works, it usually comes with a varying amount of fat gain depending on how well (or not) the diet was formulated.

And for some people, this extra adipose tissue can be difficult to lose.

Therefore, there can be a difference between gaining weight in the fastest way and increasing size in the healthiest way possible.

Over the next few sections, we will look at some ways in which we can progressively increase our weight, in a healthy way, using a low-carb diet.

Optimal Nutrition to Support Weight Gain

The Vitamin and Mineral Nutrient Profile of Chicken.

As with any way of eating, it is important to formulate a nutrient-dense diet.

Primarily, nutrient density simply refers to how nutritious our foods are and the ‘density’ of beneficial vitamins and minerals in them.

As a quick example, the nutritional properties from 500 calories of white bread and butter are very different from 500 calories of eggs, spinach, and sweet potato.

Yes, they have the same energy density, but the nutrient content is entirely different.

For instance, white bread and butter provide lots of rapidly digesting refined carbohydrates, some fat, and not much else.

On the other hand, eggs, sweet potato, and spinach offer significant quantities of magnesium, vitamin A, and potassium, just to name a few beneficial nutrients.

However, a Sufficient Energy Intake Is Still Important

The same as the health properties of a diet primarily depend on nutrient density, the actual ability to gain weight depends on energy density.

However, this doesn’t that we should run out to the shops and buy a load of ice-cream and fried chicken and wash it down with two liters of soda. `

How To Gain Weight With Nutritious Food Choices

A Bunless Avocado Burger With Fresh Salad.

First of all, the cornerstone of a well-formulated low-carb diet is similar to any other diet: minimally processed foods.

On this note, whole foods that are compatible with a low-carb way of eating include:

  • Dairy such as cheese, milk, and yogurt
  • Eggs
  • Fish and seafood in general
  • Fruit (especially low-sugar options like avocado, olives, berries)
  • Meat and organ meats
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Vegetables

However, among these nutritious food groups, we want to emphasize the most energy-dense of these foods to encourage weight gain.

Meat

Plate and Table Full of Meat - Sausages, Pork Chops, Meatballs.

While lean meat is often a popular choice, it is fattier cuts of meat that offer the most energy.

Here are some of the more energy-dense meats:

  • Bacon
  • Beef (ribs are particularly good)
  • Chicken (including skin)
  • Lamb
  • Pork (of all varieties – pork belly included)
  • Sausages
  • Steak

Fish

Fresh Raw Salmon With Lemon Slices and Leaf Decoration.

Similar to meat, oily species of fish offer much higher energy-density than lean fish.

On the positive side, as well as being very energy-dense, oily fish is the best dietary source of essential EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids (1, 2).

Some excellent options include:

  • Anchovies
  • Herring
  • Mackerel
  • Salmon
  • Sardines
  • Trout

Not only are these fish significant sources of omega-3, but they also have some of the lowest mercury concentrations among commercial fish (3).

Dairy

Various Dairy Foods With a Cow Field in the Background.

Dairy-based foods are great for weight gain because they are both nutritious and energy-dense. However, full-fat dairy is the way to go, as it is much higher in energy density than ‘skim’ and ‘low-fat’ dairy products.

The following dairy foods are all good, calorie-dense options for a weight-gaining diet:

  • Butter
  • Cheese
  • Ghee
  • Greek Yogurt
  • Heavy Cream (Double Cream)
  • Whole Milk

Eggs

Various Egg Dishes - Omelet, Scrambled Egg, Boiled Eggs.

All in all, eggs are one of the most nutrient-dense foods on earth (4).

As a result, they are your friend no matter what diet you are on.

Due to their high fat, protein, and micronutrient content they are perfect for weight gaining diets.

One of the great things about eggs is that you can prepare them in so many different ways, and each one can feel like a whole new food.

Here are just a few of the possible ways to make eggs:

  • Boiled eggs
  • Fried eggs
  • Omelets
  • Poached eggs
  • Scrambled eggs
  • Shakshuka (eggs cooked in chopped tomatoes)
  • Steamed eggs

Vegetables

Various Healthy Green Vegetables.

Just as with all the other food groups, nutrient density should be emphasized with vegetables too.

As a result, we want to be eating lots of spinach, chives, garlic, and mushrooms.

Any vegetable is a great addition, but you have a choice to make regarding starchy vegetables like potatoes, sweet potatoes, and other root vegetables.

These tend to be higher in carbohydrates. Adding starches to a calorie-dense diet full of healthy fat will increase the speed of weight gain, which for a weight-gaining diet is a good thing.

However, this may depend on how ‘low-carb’ someone prefers their diet to be.

Therefore, depending on your aims and objectives, it’s your choice whether you want to go higher carb or not.

Fruit

Fruit can play an excellent role in a weight gain diet.

As well as being high in nutrients, avocados and olives are very energy-dense too, which makes them an excellent choice (5, 6).

Another great food to include in the diet is berries.

As well as containing vitamin C and beneficial polyphenols, they also make a perfect combination with heavy cream to offer a delicious energy-dense snack/dessert (7, 8).

Plant Sources of Fat

Bottle of Olive Oil Pouring Into Avocado In a Bowl.

There is a broad range of plant-based fats that you can add to the diet.

These are relatively nutritious and also incredibly energy-dense.

Most noteworthy are the following options:

  • Avocado Oil
  • Dark Chocolate (preferably 85% or above)
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Nuts (almonds, cashews, macadamia, pecans, walnuts, etc.)
  • Seeds (chia, flaxseeds, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds)

Not only will these foods help you gain weight quickly, but they may also provide several health benefits.

For instance, studies on these foods show potential benefits such as decreased cardiovascular risk and improved markers of cardiovascular health (decreased LDL and increased HDL) in a range of large-scale studies (9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16).

Drinks

A Cup of Creamy Caffe Latte Coffee.

It’s true that liquid calories are heavily implicated as one of the main sources of excess energy, thereby contributing to the obesity crisis (17, 18).

However, for the purpose of a weight-gaining diet, this means that consuming liquid calories can be useful.

Some good, relatively healthful options (as a source of essential nutrients) include:

  • A glass of whole milk
  • Latte
  • Black tea/coffee with heavy cream
  • Cacao

How to Gain Weight and Muscle on a Low-Carb Diet?

A Dumbbell Next To Eggs and Various Meat Options.

 

A diet high in carbohydrates offers advantages for individuals looking to gain muscle/body mass. Furthermore, diets with a higher carbohydrate intake are more scientifically proven for increasing muscle mass than low-carb diets (19, 20).

However, the research from human trials shows that it is still possible to gain lean body mass on lower-carb diets (21, 22).

Providing the right nutritional requirements to grow are met, it is possible to gain muscle on any diet.

Therefore, it is entirely possible for those wishing to gain weight while keeping the carbs low.

In fact, in their position stand paper on ‘diets and body composition,’ the International Society for Sports Nutrition (ISSN) note that a specific diet for lean muscle mass actual is not important. Further, they point out that a range of dietary systems—from ketogenic and low-carb diets to high-carb, plant-based diets—can be successful (23).

Note: for those wondering how low-carb and ketogenic diets compare, see the key differences here.

Some of the major considerations are;

  • Total food intake (up the calories)
  • Keep protein high (1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight is a good target)
  • Try to get sufficient sleep (7-9 hours)
  • Regular and consistent exercise with weights

Increasing calories

In order to gain weight, we should ideally have a surplus energy intake.

According to the ISSN’s published position stand, “Diets focused primarily on accruing lean mass are driven by a sustained caloric surplus to facilitate anabolic processes and support increasing resistance-training demands.” However, it is important to note that this does not mean we have to eat excessive amounts of food as significant calorie surpluses will likely lead to increased fat and weight gain (23).

A variety of useful apps are available to provide estimates of how much food may be necessary to successfully gain weight. In this regard, Bodybuilding.com also has a useful calculator that can help with recommendations.

That said, tracking calorie intake isn’t always the right strategy for everyone.

For those with some idea of the nutritional value of different foods, ‘Eat, monitor, and adjust’ is another method that can be helpful, depending on the person.

By this expression, the mean is just to track progress through the scales and mirror and make small dietary changes dependent upon progress.

Keep protein high

Protein is the most important of the three macronutrients for increasing lean muscle mass.

Furthermore, once again referring to the ISSN’s position stand on diets and body composition, “emerging research on very high protein intakes (>3 g/kg) has demonstrated that the known thermic, satiating, and lean mass-preserving effects of dietary protein might be amplified in resistance-training subjects” (23).

In their paper on ‘protein and exercise,’ the ISSN note that 1.4 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day is “sufficient” for most individuals who exercise (24).

A dietary protein intake of 1-gram per pound of body weight would be slightly above the level the ISSN deem ‘sufficient’ but below the potential benefits of ‘very high protein intake’ at >3 grams per kg of body weight (23, 24).

Resistance Training and Heavy Lifting For Weight Gain

An Athletic Female Doing Body Squats With a Realistic Weight.

Strength training and lifting heavy weights both stimulate muscular growth and have a broad range of benefits for the body in general (25).

While a healthy, optimized diet provides the nutritional building blocks for weight gain, resistance training is necessary for stimulating muscle and increasing lean weight gain.

However, one misconception is that making physical improvements requires an excessive time commitment. The truth is that you don’t need to spend hours at the gym every day.

As a matter of fact, an intense training session two or three times per week is more than enough to stimulate muscle growth.

For individuals with access to a gym, emphasizing “the big three” compound exercises (bench press, deadlifts, and squats) can have large benefits.

These three exercises stimulate growth in a significant number of muscle fibers throughout the body. Research has also shown that squats are an excellent exercise as they increase the secretion of growth hormone compared to other exercises (26, 27, 28, 29).

Do Sleep and Stress Affect Weight Gain?

A Stressed Office Worker Holding His Head.

Since our muscles recover and grow during sleep, it’s essential to make sure we spend enough time asleep.

In fact, sleep and stress share an intrinsic connection; if you are sleep-deprived, you are much more likely to be stressed.

As a result, we want to avoid both of them.

It’s common knowledge that lack of sleep and stress both raise cortisol levels. Unfortunately, higher cortisol levels have a negative impact on gaining weight in a healthy way:

  • Higher cortisol levels both directly and indirectly influence weight gain (through overeating and the tendency to crave junk food) (30, 31).
  • Cortisol is catabolic, which is the opposite of anabolic. In other words, it breaks down muscle tissue rather than building it (32).

On the subject of sleep, the expert consensus tends to be that 7-9 hours of sleep per night is optimal for most adults (33, 34).

Overcoming Difficulties In Gaining Weight

A Skinny Man Measuring the Size of His biceps.

In short, many people attempt to build muscle, fail, and then conclude that it must be down to their genetics.

While genetics may be true in rare cases, it’s usually because of a common mistake people make: not eating enough food.

Adding more energy-dense and protein-dense foods into the diet can quickly remedy this.

Try adding an extra amount of these foods:

  • Cheese
  • Fatty fish (like salmon)
  • Meat
  • Milk
  • Nuts
  • Yogurt

But, do take care to add additional amounts slowly, or gaining fat becomes more likely.

Trial, monitor and adjust.

15 Quick Low-Carb Weight Gain Tips

Cartoon of Various Male Physiques - From Skinny To Bodybuilder.

Finally, if you still can’t gain weight then here are fifteen ideas that I’m sure will help.

Note: unless you’re in training to be a sumo wrestler, don’t implement all of them!

Try some of these:

1. Add a big piece of cheese to your daily lunch.

2. Replace one drink of water each day with whole milk.

3. Add a protein shake to your breakfast.

4. Drink a hot chocolate each day made from coconut milk and cocoa powder.

5. Add cream to your tea/coffee. If you already do, then double it.

6. Eat an additional avocado each day.

7. Add a few tablespoons of your favorite oil to your meal (olive oil is good).

8. Sleep for longer than you have been doing; sleep is when you grow.

9. Eat fatty cuts of meat rather than lean cuts.

10. Melt some cheese on top of your dinner each day.

11. Eat an additional bowl of berries, covered with heavy cream and dark chocolate shavings.

12. Include an extra handful of nuts in your daily diet.

13. If you drink black coffee, replace it with a latte.

14. Increase your portion sizes and eat, monitor, and then adjust. EMA.

15. Considering adding more carbohydrate: emphasize higher quality, nutrient-dense carbs.

Final Thoughts

For those wishing to be a bodybuilder with a massive physique, then consuming high amounts of carbohydrate will is likely a more efficient and proven way to get there. But that’s not what this article is about.

All things considered, this article shows how a low-carbohydrate dietary protocol can be compatible with gaining lean body mass and overall weight.

One thing to bear in mind though: eating more can be expensive, so here are some tips for eating on a budget.

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Deborah
Deborah
2 years ago

Ah, perhaps should add that I am a 47 yo female with weight of 85.6lbs, 5 feet tall and fat weight% of 11.4. Keto diet. Want to put on healthy fat weight.

Deborah
Deborah
2 years ago

Hey, looks more likely to get some questions answered here than on DietDR. If I looked to gain weight on the keto diet and eat every 3 hours, how big in grams or oz should each portion be? I’m looking at getting all 6 catorgies in and could do 6 x3 hours if need be.

jimmy Hinkson
jimmy Hinkson
2 years ago

is there a good alternative to coconut milk? i can’t bear consuming it.

Beto
Beto
2 years ago

1.2g protein / kg would not be little for mass gain?
Although it is the minimum.
Emphasis needs to be bigger on proteins, okay?

audreyboyle
audreyboyle
2 years ago

so what about women. i find it incredible that its male focussed

Phil Slater
3 years ago

Agreed with Michael there. Although processed meats don’t sound good to me, it still depends on a lot of factors. Anyways, it was nice reading your article. I have just one question. In the case of hard gainers, what specific foods can you suggest?

Sergio
Sergio
3 years ago

Promoting processed meats and meat in general is also promoting the increase of coronary heart disease and cancer. There are plenty of alternatives!