Health journeys are not the same for every person. While the concept of weight loss gets more focus in the media, weight gain can be an important factor for health balance in individuals, too.
People who are looking to support healthy weight gain typically desire to increase muscle mass, since by default muscle carries more weight than body fat. Building muscle to increase body weight is a complex equation that isn’t as simple as taking a supplement. However, some dietary supplements have proven effective aids for supporting a balanced body composition, which can include supporting healthy muscles. And ultimately, weight is just one aspect of overall physical health and is not the most important metric to track.
Read on to learn about 10 supplements that may support healthy weight gain goals.
Several types of supplements can help with weight gain and muscle building when they are combined with a balanced diet and regular physical activity. Some types of supplements are backed by more evidence than others because they have been studied more frequently or in larger groups.
It’s important to remember that many factors influence a person’s body composition, including genetics, overall health, age, activity level, health history, dietary intake, and more. Before you start dietary supplements for any reason, check with your healthcare provider to ensure that they are safe for your health needs and do not interact with anything else that you take.
Protein supplies amino acids to the body, the literal building blocks of life. Without protein, you cannot build muscle. It’s an essential macronutrient for healthy weight gain and overall well-being. Protein is an excellent source of fuel for the body, too. Everyone needs protein, but those who are looking to gain weight or increase their muscle mass will have higher protein requirements.
The estimated average requirement (EAR) for protein varies based on a person’s sex (as assigned at birth), age, and stage of life. Older adults and pregnant people have higher protein needs than younger adults or non-pregnant people. Protein needs are based on a person’s body weight, so they are expressed as the number of grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (g/kg).
The baseline recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 g/kg. More specific protein recommended intakes are as follows:
People who follow a vegan diet or get most of their protein from plant-based sources need to be aware that proteins from plant sources do not have as high of an absorption rate as animal-sourced proteins. Some experts recommend that people who follow vegan or vegetarian diets should aim for a minimum of 1.0 g/kg of protein per day, but research shows that as long as plant-based diets include protein from a wide variety of sources, protein absorption is comparable to diets that include meat.
Overall, if you want to gain weight by supporting more muscle mass, you will need a higher protein intake compared to your typical diet. Some people struggle to eat higher protein diets, which is why protein powders or shakes can be beneficial.
The best protein powder for weight gain depends on your dietary preferences. The two most popular sources of protein powder are whey and casein, which are both derived from dairy. Studies have found that both can support muscle building, but research from fecal microbiota transfer found that casein protein more commonly increased weight gain while whey protein was more likely to cause a reduction in weight.
Whey and casein are both beneficial when it comes to supporting muscle growth in association with training programs. There are also plenty of plant-based protein sources that come from peas, pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds, and more. The protein powder that best serves your weight goals is one that fits with your dietary needs and is one that you will use. Taste preferences, ingredients, and cost are common factors to consider when choosing a protein powder. Always be sure to read the label, since many protein powders contain additional ingredients, which are important to consider if you have food allergies, want to avoid sugar, or have other specific dietary needs. Check the serving size, too, since serving can vary widely from one product to another.
Creatine is a blend of 3 amino acids (methionine, glycine, and arginine) that is typically used by athletes to support faster muscle recovery and boost energy levels during cardio and resistance training. Some also take it right before high-impact exercise, since it can support how the body utilizes energy. Creatine can support healthy muscles, including how they respond to exercise and training. Since the process of muscle-building utilizes a tear-down and rebuilding process, creatine can be a helpful support in the natural build and repair mechanism of muscle growth.
You can get creatine from foods that contain protein. It’s found in the highest concentrations in seafood, red meat, poultry, and pork. Or your body can make creatine. Since athletes don’t usually want to eat a high-meat meal right before training or sporting events, creatine supplements may be used to provide the energy support without the digestive burden of a hefty meal.
When consuming creatine supplements, it’s important to stay well-hydrated. Creatine can lead to water retention without adequate fluid intake. Creatine is generally considered to be safe for most people, with research noting no negative effects from daily intakes of 4-5 grams for up to 18 months, or 10 grams daily for up to 5 years. Before using creatine, consult your healthcare provider and always follow the serving size and guidelines on your specific creatine supplement. You can read more about creatine here.
While the omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil do come from fat, the belief that they could lead to weight gain is not correct. Omega-3 fats like EPA and DHA support many healthy physiological processes in the body. There are also vegan sources of fish oil supplements that are derived from algae.
When fish oil is paired with protein and a nutrient-dense dietary intervention, it can be supportive of health-related weight gain needs in a relatively short time frame.
There are many fish oil supplements available. The type that works for you depends on your dietary preferences and other health factors, but many healthcare providers note that fish oil has a wide range of benefits for human health.
The B-complex family of vitamins are a group of nutrients that have individual benefits but also work together for important functions that involve cellular energy, metabolism, nervous system, circulation, immune system, DNA synthesis, and more. Vitamin B12 is a common nutrient deficiency because unlike other B vitamins, it primarily only comes from animal food sources. People who follow vegan or vegetarian diets typically have to supplement in order to ensure that they get enough.
Even people who eat meat and dairy products can be deficient in vitamin B12. Age, genetics, and digestive function, including whether you have enough stomach acid, all influence whether your body can absorb the B12 you consume from food or supplements. Folate, another important B vitamin, is so essential that it is added to many foods in a process called fortification. But getting a lot of folate or folic acid from dietary or supplement sources can sometimes mask B12 deficiency. All of the B vitamins are necessary, and being low in one can have a dramatic effect on your health and how you feel.
B vitamins are vital for many enzymatic and metabolic processes, including how your body breaks down protein and fat for energy. You need B vitamins to help send nutrients where they need to go, helping you produce energy, blood cells, assisting with growth as well as storing energy for later use. Both of these are necessary for weight balance and metabolic health, especially for healthy muscles. Even if you’re not an athlete looking to increase your muscle definition, you need your muscles to have a good energy supply. When you’re short on protein, muscles can be broken down to serve the body’s needs, but overall, this can lead to wasting or malnutrition. B vitamins are water soluble so you need to replenish your levels daily.
When you want to support healthy weight gain or muscular wellness, you need optimal intake of the B vitamins. Consuming a diet with lots of food variety, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, dairy, and healthy protein will typically cover your B vitamin needs. If you do not eat animal foods, or you have food allergies that exclude dairy, nuts, or other food groups, you may need a B-complex supplement or standalone B nutrients, like vitamin B12, vitamin B6, or others, to ensure that your dietary needs are met.
Vitamin D mostly comes from sun exposure or supplements. There are not many foods that provide robust amounts of this nutrient, even though it’s crucial for human health. Vitamin D is needed for lots of things ranging from healthy immune function to cellular energy to neuromuscular wellness and beyond. A large volume of research has found associations between inadequate vitamin D and health complications.
If you want to support healthy weight balance or need to increase your weight or muscular volume, having your vitamin D levels assessed is a good place to start. It is one of the most common labs to come back as low or deficient. Once you know your status, you can make a plan with your doctor to supplement. Because vitamin D is fat-soluble, your body will store it. While you need vitamin D for healthy bones, muscles, and more, too much can have an opposite effect. So be sure to have your doctor check your levels periodically especially when supplementing.
One of the most common categories of supplements used for weight gain, mass gainers refer to formulations that typically contain many types of nutrients. Each formulation may vary, but they typically include some type of protein (whey, casein, or others), a source of fat (MCT oil, coconut oil, etc.), and carbohydrates for extra energy (caloric) intake.
If you choose to take a mass gainer, read the label carefully, since many also include sugar or other sweeteners and could include fillers. This is important to consider if you have food allergies, sensitivities, or specific dietary restrictions.
Mass gainers can be used in addition to a healthy, balanced diet to support your overall nutritional needs.
Beta-alanine (BA) is an amino acid that is one component of the dipeptide molecule carnosine (the other being the amino acid histidine). Carnosine supports muscular function by buffering acid within the muscle cells and having antioxidant impacts. On its own, beta-alanine is taken as a supplement to support short energy increases for high-intensity exercise or athletic performances, like 400 meter sprints or swim races. It does not have a long-lasting effect on energy.
The best quality evidence supports beta-alanine use for muscular endurance and muscular energy, with other benefits supported by lower-quality evidence or lacking any clinical proof at all. It has no evidence for supporting weight gain or muscle building.
Potentially the best use for beta-alanine as a healthy weight-gain support or relates to its ability to buffer neuromuscular fatigue in the short-term around physical activity. This effect is most notable in older adults. As such, if someone desires to support healthy muscle building with exercise, beta-alanine may support the ability to follow through with more consistent exercise activity, although there are still many factors to consider.
Beta-alanine is naturally found in foods like beef and chicken and can be taken as a dietary supplement. Carnosine supplements are also available, which provide both beta-alanine and histidine together. Beta-alanine is considered to be generally safe and well-tolerated when taken between 3-6 grams per day, although at the upper range of intake it can cause a tingling side effect that can be uncomfortable for some individuals. Some people prefer to take it in divided doses (0.6-1.5 grams throughout the day) to avoid the tingling side effect.
HMB stands for beta-hydroxy beta-methylbutyrate (ꞵ-hydroxy ꞵ-methylbutyrate). It is a metabolite of the amino acid leucine, one of the branched-chain amino acids (BCAA). HMB is used to help alleviate the breakdown of muscle and the loss of fat mass in certain conditions. In research, it has shown effectiveness for preserving body composition in aging adults and those who have physical activity limitations from immobilization or other unavoidable sedentary lifestyle factors, but it cannot increase body mass, improve body composition, or fuel athletic performance.
Intakes of HMB at up to 3 grams daily are generally tolerated well and have not been associated with adverse effects in research. Typically this is done in divided servings, like 1 gram taken three times per day.
Glutamine is a conditionally essential amino acid, which means that it is required under certain circumstances in the body. These can include periods of healing and recovery, including post-surgical recovery. Glutamine is the most abundant amino acid found in the blood and has various purposes. One of them is to modulate nitrogen balance, which is important for preventing protein losses. It’s also necessary for healthy immune system function, gut barrier integrity, and overall systemic cellular maintenance.
While glutamine is frequently promoted for exercise benefits among athletes, research doesn’t support it for those purposes. It also has not been shown to increase or affect muscle mass. Supplementing with glutamine is not associated with negative affects, but for the purpose of supporting healthy body composition or weight gain, glutamine is not impactful.
Zinc is an essential mineral that is known for its impact on healthy immune system function. It also supports healthy digestion and overall well-being. It is not a nutrient that is known to cause weight gain or affect body composition in a direct way, but it is essential for basic health, so deficiencies may interfere with achieving health goals. People who eat plant-based diets, have absorption or digestive challenges, or who are pregnant or lactating are at the greatest risk for inadequate intakes. Zinc supplements are frequently used to support healthy intake.
Body type and metabolism are two related, but distinct, aspects of your health. Your genetics plays a major role in both, although so do other factors, like age, activity level, nutritional status, stage of life, and many other things.
Body types vary and there is no single definition of a “healthy” body type. Weight is far from the most essential factor to determine whether someone is healthy or not. Likewise, metabolism is a complex set of many physiological factors. It isn’t only about how quickly your body takes the food you eat and converts it into energy.
People can hyperfocus on body type or metabolism as health features that they are dissatisfied with or that they seek to manage, improve, or control. But it’s more important and effective to focus on the bigger picture, like an overall healthy lifestyle, instead of reducing the whole body down to one element.
If you need help determining what is healthy for you, or how to improve your wellness, work with a registered dietitian, medical provider, or certified trainer who can help you see the big picture of wellness and craft a plan that supports your goals without creating a lopsided interpretation of health.
If you want to increase your body weight, it is important to focus on a balanced intake of macronutrients. Each one serves an important role in providing energy for certain aspects of wellness. Additionally, meal timing can be another consideration. When you fuel your body with food every 2-3 hours, you may be more able to sustain weight gain than if you skip meals or eat larger meals less frequently.
Carbohydrates typically have a bad reputation for being causes of unwanted weight gain, but they are important sources of energy for every diet, whether you are seeking to support healthy changes to your body weight or want to maintain where you are.
Carbohydrates from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds provide energy and fiber, which is important for a healthy gastrointestinal system and total body wellness. Carbs that come from these more nutrient dense sources will support your energy intake and provide more additional nutrients compared to refined carbohydrates, white flours, or high-sugar foods.
Fats are more calorie-dense than carbohydrates or protein (which contain 4 calories per gram). Each gram of fat contains 9 calories. But calories alone are not what matters most. Healthy fats are also important for nourishing healthy omega-3 and omega-6 balance in the body, hormone maintenance, stored energy, and healthy system function for immunity, the circulation, our nervous and musculoskeletal systems, and more.
Healthy sources of fat include olive oil, avocado, nut butters, chia seeds, coconut oil, salmon and other coldwater fish, as well as meat, eggs, and dairy. Ultimately, dietary variety is important.
Micronutrients include all of the vitamins and minerals, and while most are not specifically associated with weight gain, they are all essential in their appropriate intake amounts for supporting balanced health. Deficiencies or excesses in one can have body-wide impacts on other nutrients and health factors.
Food intake diversity is important, so focus on a healthy diet that includes as much variety as possible. You can also take a multivitamin supplement to support adequate micronutrient intake.
Too many factors go into determining whether a supplement is safe or not to make this a simple “yes” or “no” answer. To gauge whether a supplement is safe for you, consider the ingredients and whether or not the product is third-party tested and certified. You should also evaluate the supplement in the context of your current dietary intake and other health needs. For example, protein powders and high-protein diets may not be safe if you have kidney issues, even if you need to increase your calorie intake. The other medications and supplements that you take should also be considered, since interactions can happen.
It’s always important to ask your doctor or healthcare provider about supplements before you start taking anything new.
A balanced diet is the best way to nourish your body, including when you need to or want to gain weight. While high-sugar foods, starchy snacks, or other sweets might have a higher amount of calories per serving, they’re not necessarily the safest or most effective way to support a balanced weight.
To add more energy density to your meals, try adding extra healthy fats, like olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil, or butter. You can also increase portions of whole grains like brown rice or starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes. Adding an extra snack, or eating more frequently, will also supply energy to your body at a steadier intake.
Snack foods that are good choices, depending on your personal food restrictions, can include:
Every cell in your body needs adequate fluid. Digestion, nutrient absorption, energy processes, muscular contraction, and more depend on proper hydration. How much fluid you need per day depends a lot on your activity level and dietary intake, but generally, sipping on fluids throughout the day is best for maintaining good hydration instead of drinking high volumes of fluids at one time. You may not need 8 glasses of water per day, but for many, that can serve as a good bar for hydration awareness.
Gaining weight in a healthy manner is about increasing muscle mass, which is heavily influenced by the demands that are placed on the muscles. Strength or resistance training are important for muscle building and supporting a balanced body composition. There are many ways to do this, though, without hitting a gym and working with an athletic trainer.
Any type of activity that makes you move your body places demands on your muscles, including walking, yoga, swimming, and more. If you have specific goals for increasing muscle mass, then you may need to work with a physical therapist or personal trainer.
If you do increase your physical activity compared to what you normally do, this will also generally increase your food intake needs to maintain or increase your body weight. However, since muscle mass weighs more than adipose tissue, over time you may see a more muscular body composition along with a higher weight. This is one reason why body weight alone is not a reliable indicator of health.
It takes time to see effects from dietary or nutritional changes. Your activity level, food intake, age, and many other factors can influence how quickly you may expect to see results. Work with your medical provider to set goals and to track progress.