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How to add pounds if you're underweight

Tips for putting on pounds without putting your health at risk.

In a culture where far too many of us are struggling to trim down, you might not get much sympathy if you need to add pounds. But it's a serious concern.

Being too thin can be a health risk, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP). You may not be getting enough calories to fuel your body. You may also be missing out on essential nutrients.

What's too thin?

One way to know if your weight has fallen below what's healthy is to calculate your body mass index (BMI). Your BMI is a number based on your weight in relation to your height. You can figure out your BMI using this calculator.

If your BMI is below 18.5, you may indeed be at risk for health problems, including menstrual irregularities and infertility, if you're a premenopausal woman, cautions the AAFP.

Check with your doctor to see if you should try to add pounds.

Your game plan

Gaining weight can be just as challenging as losing it.

Still, it's doable, but doing it the right way is key. As with weight loss, weight gain requires a healthful approach.

What follows are tips on adding pounds from the AAFP, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the Office on Women's Health—with an important caveat: The advice you're about to read is not intended for anyone with an eating disorder, such as anorexia nervosa. If you have an eating disorder, you need help from a health professional.

That said, here are effective ways to nudge your bathroom scale upward:

  • Be fat-savvy. High-fat foods are typically high-calorie ones. That means you may be tempted to load up on fatty chips, cookies and the like. But your goal is to improve your health, not risk it. So be sure your overall diet is heart-friendly. Choose healthy fats, such as those found in olive oil, canola oil and fish. Limit saturated fats and trans fats, such as those found in baked goods. And keep your total fat consumption at a moderate level.
  • Maximize each mouthful. Add milk—not calorie-free water—to hot cereal, soups and sauces. Sprinkle powdered milk on casseroles and meatloaf for extra calories. Add olives, nuts and cheese to salads.
  • Drink to gain. Drink beverages before and after your meals instead of with them. By drinking less during mealtimes, you'll have more room for food. Opt for juice, milk, shakes or smoothies instead of water, tea, coffee or other beverages without calories.
  • Finally, add a liquid meal replacement to your diet if you're having trouble getting enough calories from meals and snacks.

Reviewed 12/6/2023

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