There are literally hundreds of books and probably tens of thousands of articles that purport to help people LOSE weight. This makes sense when you consider we are in the middle of an obesity epidemic with more Americans being overweight than not. That being said there are still people out there who have trouble packing on quality muscle mass and weight. Unfortunately, there isn’t much information to help those people, or at least, there isn’t much in the way of GOOD information.
If you are a hardgainer (someone who tends to be underweight or someone who is “skinny fat”) you know how frustrating it can be. I know how hard it can be to try and try to gain weight to no avail. One part of the problem is that most workouts that are out there are terrible. The other big problem, which is at least HALF of the issue, is that there isn’t good quality information on how to EAT to gain MASS and muscle. Most of what you will read will just say “eat more.” To which you probably are thinking “I AM EATING A TON ALREADY!!” Lol. I know the feeling. The problem is that you probably don’t know HOW much you NEED to eat. You are doing it blindly.
Here is the deal, you may be eating a lot compared to your fat friends (and they may be jealous of you), but you simply are not eating ENOUGH. If your workout is on point (MAPS Programs for example) and you aren’t packing on muscle size, then your caloric intake needs to increase. Can’t get around this. Also, unless you are a competitive sumo wrestler, I am assuming most of the weight you want to gain you want to be muscle. What you eat will make a huge difference in how much you can eat and it will help determine whether or not you gain muscle or body fat. Alright, let’s get to it.
Protein is the macronutrient that builds muscle DIRECTLY. You will need a lot of it, but not as much as the supplement companies will have you thinking. Study after study shows that consuming just under 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight is the max you will gain any benefit from (example: 150 grams of protein for a 150lbs man). Eat more than that and you won’t gain any muscle building benefit. It’s also important to note that protein can be very SATIATING. This means protein will suppress appetite, which is why you don’t want to eat more protein than you need. Since you are already having a hard time packing on size, it will likely be counterproductive to eat more than a gram of protein per pound of body weight. Save those calories for carbs and fats.
As far as the best sources of protein are concerned, I suggest animal sources. My clients always found the most success when they consumed lots of chicken, beef, turkey, whole eggs, lamb and fish. Hardgainers especially seem to respond well to beef and whole eggs. Beef has been touted by muscle building gurus for DECADES and some recent studies have shown that whole egg consumption triggers a larger muscle building response than just egg whites even when calories and protein are controlled for. I suspect it’s the cholesterol.
Dairy is good too but only IF you can tolerate it. Gut problems from consuming foods you have trouble digesting will stop your progress fast, but if dairy isn’t an issue for you, it will provide an inexpensive and high quality source of protein.
Protein powders can come in handy if eating enough protein is hard for you, although I will caution you. Do NOT rely on them. Protein powders are the epitome of processed foods (chocolate flavored powder that has a shelf life of 10 years?) and, in my experience nothing will build quality muscle like REAL FOOD.
Carbohydrates are not an essential macronutrient, but they are a preferred source of fuel for your body. Studies have shown that carbs play a role in both muscle recovery and muscle growth/adaptation. Low carb diets can be used to build muscle, but they are not ideal. It’s simply too hard to gain a decent amount of size without carbs. This may be because carbs can make us want to eat more, while low carb diets make us want to eat less. It also may be because carbs provide us with the type of energy we need for strength and power. Muscle comes from getting stronger, so don’t shoot yourself in the foot by restricting your energetic source of strength.
I recommend EASY to digest carbs. Good sources include potato, sweet potato, white rice, fruit, oatmeal, buckwheat and quinoa. I don’t typically recommend breads and pastas because they tend to bloat clients. Being bloated will hinder your ability to eat enough calories. Nothing is worse than knowing you need to eat more, but not being able to because you feel “stuffed.” A good number to start at for carbs for most hardgainers is around 2-3 grams of carbs per pound of body weight (example: 150lbs man will eat between 300 and 450 grams of carbs). For hardgainers with insanely fast metabolisms it may even be more.
Fats are an essential macronutrient. This means you MUST eat a certain amount of them or your body will not survive. Fats are needed for healthy hormones and studies will show that too low of fat intake LOWERS testosterone production in men. NOT GOOD. If you want to build muscle, you will need this anabolic muscle building hormone to be at its highest natural level. Fats are also very calorically dense. One gram of fat has more calories than two grams of carbs or proteins. This makes fats an EASY way to add calories. Keep in mind, however, that fats are also pretty satiating, so don’t go crazy and overdo fats or you won’t want to eat again for a while. Good sources of fats include animal sources, full fat dairy, olive oil, coconut oil, avocado and nuts. A good starting point for fat intake for a hardgainer is usually around 0.5 to 1 gram of fat per pound of body weight.
Although I gave some macro recommendations above, you must understand that there is a HUGE individual variance. What works for one person may not work for another. Your best bet is to figure out how many calories YOU need for your individual body. The only way to do this accurately is to track your food for a couple weeks BEFORE you start on your mass building diet. Use a free food tracker like My Fitness Pal or Fat Secret. Once you track your regular eating, you will get a roughly individualized idea of how many calories you normally consume. Once you get this number just add 500-1000 calories to it for the gains. Aim for a pace of 2-4lbs of weight gain per month. I know this doesn’t sound like much, but remember, you want MUSCLE gain not fat. Plus, 2-4lbs of muscle gain a month is actually pretty crazy. Over a 3 month period you could theoretically pack on 12lbs of lean mass. That’s not bad at all.