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

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How to gain weight the healthy way
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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

Energy Dense Foods On a Wooden Board - Nuts, Cheese, Olives.

Same as the health properties of a diet depends on nutrient density, the actual ability to gain weight depends on energy density.

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

Having said that, you may hear some people advise ‘bulking and cutting’ cycles to gain weight.

Eat everything you can while bulking, and then cut the fat off through diet.

Sounds good, right?

For some people who can lose the fat they gained, this can do the job.

However, although it may increase size, it certainly isn’t healthy.

In my book, the best way forward is to maintain a slight calorie surplus, review progress using the mirror (and scale if need be) and adjust accordingly.

The type of foods that you eat also play a significant role in how successful this is, so let’s take a look at them.

How To Gain Weight With Nutritious Food Choices

A Bunless Avocado Burger With Fresh Salad.

First of all, the cornerstones of a healthy diet should remain the same.

The staple food groups of the diet should be based around:

  • Meat
  • Fish
  • Dairy
  • Eggs
  • Vegetables
  • Fruit (especially avocado, olives, berries)

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.

Choose fatty cuts of meat, preferably from pasture-raised animals.

Red meat is one of the most nutrient-dense foods, and it should play a prominent role in a weight gaining diet.

Here are some good choices of meats:

  • Bacon (ideally traditionally cured)
  • Beef (ribs are particularly good)
  • Chicken (including skin)
  • Lamb
  • Pork (of all varieties – pork belly included)
  • Sausages (minimally processed, made with real meat)
  • Steak

Fish

Fresh Raw Salmon With Lemon Slices and Leaf Decoration.

For fish, we want to be eating the oily varieties.

First of all, due to the extra fat, it is much more energy-dense.

Secondly, it is full of beneficial omega-3 which helps to balance our omega 3-6 ratio and decrease systemic inflammation (1).

I recommend the following fish:

  • Anchovies
  • Mackerel
  • Salmo
  • Sardines
  • Trout

Not only are these fish the highest sources of omega-3, but they also have the lowest mercury content among commercial fish (2).

Dairy

Various Dairy Foods With a Cow Field in the Background.

Full-fat dairy is the way to go.

Dairy-based foods are great for weight gain because they are both nutritious and energy-dense.

You can include the following dairy foods in your 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 (3).

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.

So feel free to include lots of them in your diet:

  • Boiled eggs
  • Fried eggs
  • Omelets
  • Poached eggs
  • Scrambled eggs
  • 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 carbohydrate. Adding starches to a calorie-dense diet full of healthy fat will increase the speed of weight gain – a good thing.

However, this will increase the likelihood of more fat gain too.

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

Fruit

Fruit can play a great 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 (4, 5).

Another great food to include in the diet is berries.

As well as containing beneficial polyphenols, they can also combine with heavy cream to offer a delicious energy-dense snack/dessert.

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
  • Coconut Oil
  • Dark Chocolate (preferably 85% or above)
  • Nuts (almonds, cashews, macadamia, pecans walnuts, etc.)
  • Olive Oil

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

Avocado, chocolate, nuts, and olives are all associated with significantly decreased cardiovascular risk in a range of large-scale studies (6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13).

Drinks

A Cup of Creamy Caffe Latte Coffee.

Usually, I recommend against drinking calories.

However, as this is a weight gain diet, consuming liquid calories can be useful.

Some good, relatively healthy ideas include:

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

Remember, this is about how to gain weight the healthy way; that means no soda or sugary junk!

Regarding alcohol, it is better if you abstain, but there are various low carb options if you want a drink or two.

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

A Dumbbell Next To Eggs and Various Meat Options.

First of all, it’s a myth that building muscle and gaining weight isn’t possible on a low-carb diet.

So, if you decide you want to gain weight while keeping the carbs low, that’s no problem at all.

Some of the major considerations are;

  • Total food intake (up the calories)
  • Keep protein high (personally, I find 1g per pound of bodyweight is a good target)
  • Sleep well
  • Exercise hard

Many of you may know PD Mangan from Rogue Health and Fitness.

If you don’t know him, then he runs a website teaching men “how to be lean and muscular.”

Also, he is 61-years young and has more muscle than most people in their twenties!

As gaining weight the healthy way is his forte, I asked for his thoughts on building muscle on a low-carb diet.

Here’s what he had to say:

It’s an interesting area – bodybuilders swear by carbs, but the research doesn’t back this up. For instance, insulin is necessary for muscle protein synthesis, but protein raises insulin as much as necessary, and adding carbs doesnt mean increased synthesis of muscle. Then there’s the issue of glycogen – since weightlifting is high intensity, a lot of the energy burned is glycogen – yet you don’t need a “full tank” of glycogen to get through a gym session, only a few hundred calories worth. Another area is bulking – deliberately gaining weight. Unfortunately, bulking usually just makes people fat. So the advice I give to people who want to gain muscle is to ingest protein, at the very least 1.2kg/kg, and keep carbs low to moderate.

-PD Mangan, Rogue Health and Fitness

Evidence For Weight Gain With a Low-Carb Diet.

Some of the best research in this area was conducted in 2014, with a study investigating the effects of a ketogenic diet on skeletal muscle.

Particularly important is the fact that the study used a very low-carbohydrate intake (<5%).

Additionally, the effect of this diet directly compared the effects of a traditional high-carbohydrate diet to the ketogenic diet.

Twenty-six resistance-trained men participated in the study and were split into two groups:

Group 1: 5% CHO, 75% Fat, 20% Protein (Ketogenic Diet)

Group 2: 55% CHO, 25% Fat, 20% Protein (Traditional Western Diet)

After 11 weeks, the results were as follows:

      • The ketogenic diet resulted in a 0.4kg greater lean body mass increase.
      • Fat mass decreased on the ketogenic diet by 2.2kg (0.7kg greater than the Western diet group)

To sum up, the results show that the very low-carb diet had a more significant impact on lean body mass gain, weight loss, and body fat (14).

If you’re wondering how low-carb and ketogenic diets compare, see the key differences here.

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 (15).

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

Right away, let’s shoot one myth down; 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.

If you have access to a gym, make sure to emphasize “the big three” compound exercises; bench press, deadlifts, and squats.

More than any other exercise, these three stimulate the most muscles fibers in the body.

In particular, squats are an excellent exercise as they increase secretion of growth hormone compared to other exercises (16).

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) (17, 18).
  • Cortisol is catabolic, the opposite of anabolic – in other words, it breaks down muscle tissue rather than building it (19).

Consequently, to be in optimal condition and promote healthy weight gain, a few relatively simple things we can do include:

  • Sleeping 7-9 hours per night
  • Socializing rather than remaining isolated
  • Ensuring we don’t overtrain (exercise too much)

Finding time to relax and enjoy our lives

How to Gain Weight: Overcome Difficulties

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 you will just gain fat.

Trial, monitor and adjust.

And, if you still can’t gain weight?

15 Quick Weight Gain “Hacks”

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. Add more carbohydrate: emphasize higher quality, nutrient-dense carbs.

Final Thoughts

All things considered, unlike the mainstream belief, gaining body mass doesn’t necessitate high carbohydrate intake.

Looking at people like PD Mangan and Mark Sisson, both of whom are in their 60s, just goes to reinforce this point.

Sure; if you want to be a bodybuilder with a massive physique then consuming huge amounts of carbohydrate will get you there quicker, but that’s not what this article is about.

A low or moderate carbohydrate intake is entirely compatible with the goal of gaining weight.

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

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Deborah
Deborah
1 year 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
1 year 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
2 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!