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How to Gain Weight the Healthy Way

When talking about achieving a healthy weight, most people immediately think of weight loss. However, some people have different weight concerns. During cancer treatment, some patients experience unintentional weight loss. For some patients, this unintentional weight loss may put them in the underweight category.

Being underweight increases the risk for the following:

  • Malnutrition
  • Loss of muscle mass
  • Loss of bone
  • Decreased immunity
  • Anemia
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Changes in the menstrual cycle (women)

People who are underweight may feel weak or tired and may need more time to heal physically after cancer treatment.

Strategies for Weight Gain

Adding additional protein and calories to your menu supports weight gain. However, it is best to gain weight with healthy food choices. Food high in added sugars may contain a lot of calories, but it is still important to eat foods that properly nourish your body with protein, carbohydrates, healthy fats, and a variety of nutrients when trying to gain weight. A plan created for you with the help of a registered dietitian is the best way to achieve a healthy weight after cancer treatment.

Here are some general tips you may be able to incorporate into your plan.

Manage lingering side effects.

  • If side effects from treatment such as nausea, diarrhea, decreased appetite, or taste changes are still making it difficult for you to eat, learn ways to manage them. Visit our Managing Cancer Side Effects page for tips and strategies by side effect.
  • Talk to your healthcare team about side effects. You may benefit from medication to help make side effects more manageable.

Eat frequently and regularly throughout the day.

  • Eat at least 5-6 small meals or snacks a day.
  • Eat every 2-3 hours even if you do not feel hungry.
  • Set a timer to remind you to eat.
  • Eat any time you feel hungry.

Increase protein intake.

  • Choose foods high in protein such as chicken, fish, meat, eggs, nuts, beans, and tofu.
  • Eat these foods first when having a meal, especially if you tend to feel full quickly.

Use smoothies and shakes to add more calories and protein.

  • Add ingredients such as whole milk, powdered milk, protein powder, peanut butter, or yogurt to smoothies and shakes for extra calories and protein.
  • Look for premade liquid nutrition supplements at your grocery or drug store. Ask a registered dietitian which type is best for you.

Add fats to foods to increase calories.

  • Use butter, oils, mayonnaise, sour cream, and salad dressing liberally.
  • Use oil and butter when cooking instead of nonstick spray.
  • Add peanut butter or cream cheese to meals and snacks.

Make food more accessible.

  • When away from home, keep snacks such as granola bars, peanut butter crackers, cheese, or nuts with you so you do not have to wait to eat.
  • At home, stock up on your favorite snacks, and keep snacks in a visible location as a reminder to eat and to stimulate your appetite.

Rebuild muscle mass.

  • Use strength training exercises to build up lean muscle mass.
  • Start small with exercises that can be done while sitting down.
  • Ask for a referral to a physical therapist, especially if you have mobility issues.
  • Talk to your healthcare team before beginning any exercise plan.

Gaining weight and rebuilding muscle mass can be slow process. Talk to your healthcare team and dietitian about setting reasonable goals and following safe strategies to reach a healthy weight. Reach out to your healthcare team if you struggle to meet your goals. You may need to make adjustments to your plan or consider medication to stimulate your appetite.