This post is about long-term bodyweight manipulation, specifically focused on the problem of trying to permanently gain a significant amount of weight (10+ lbs).
There are people — mostly young men — who find it difficult to gain weight, even when they are consciously trying to gain weight by consuming more calories than normal (for them). I want to take a few paragraphs here to clear some weeds and discuss the reasons why these “hard-gainers” have such a difficult time, and then I’m going to offer a few strategies for breaking through the combined biological and behavioral barriers to weight-gain. If you just want to skip to the strategies, go ahead and skip down to the section titled, “Stealth Calories.” Spoiler alert, I’m going to tell skinny people that they need to stop eating Paleo for a little while.
This is Why You’re Skinny:
Most natural systems, including biological systems, tend toward equilibrium. Your body is an example of a self-regulating biological system that tends toward equilibrium (homeostasis), with body-temperature being one of the most obvious and easily measurable examples. Your internal body temperature will fluctuate from moment to moment, day to day, and year to year, but the normal range for those fluctuations is very small — plus or minus about 1 degree Farenheit. Your average body temperature over time remains extremely constant because you have some simple and effective mechanisms that are responsible for thermoregulation (i.e. keeping your body at the right temperature). When you’re getting too hot, you start to sweat, and when you’re getting too cold, you start to shiver. These mechanisms are important because everybody knows that if your body temperature gets too high or too low, this can be a serious problem and can eventually lead to death.
The science is still very under-developed, but there is some evidence to suggest that your body also has a set of mechanisms for maintaining an equilibrium bodyweight — what lots of folks refer to as a bodyweight “set point.” One of the mechanisms that we can all understand is the distended stomach: if you’ve ever over-done it during Thanksgiving and actually eaten yourself sick, then you understand that your body has ways of stopping you from eating “too much.” At least temporarily, you feel so full that you can’t do much of anything for several hours, and the mere thought of food may actually make you nauseous. There may also be some much more complex and less overt mechanisms that help keep your bodyweight hovering around some equilibrium point determined by your DNA.
All of this is a long way of saying that if your body actually has an equilibrium weight, and that equilibrium is “skinny,” then getting “huge” is going to take a shock large enough and sustained enough to overcome your body’s natural equilibrium. The reason why “hard gainers” have to try “hard” to gain weight may be partially programmed into their genes, but the reason why many “hard gainers” ultimately fail to gain weight has absolutely nothing to do with genetics, and everything to do with behavior. The problem is that, behaviorally, humans like things that maintain equilibrium. We like routines — we like eating things that we’re used to eating in the amounts to which we are accustomed. And, when we try to modify routines, we typically like to make small, incremental modifications to those routines: “Yeah, I started eating three eggs for breakfast instead of two…I’m trying to bulk up.” In life, you earn exactly zero points for trying.
Changes that are small and incremental are the opposite of the shocks that are necessary to disrupt equilibrium. Changes that constitute a shock will be reckoned in multiplication, not addition. An example of a true shock would be taking your current daily caloric intake and increasing it by at least half (multiply by 1.5). That doesn’t mean adding another egg to your breakfast — that means adding at least 1000 more calories per day to a “normal” diet. How do you make massive changes, when you’re body has systems that specifically resist those changes? You need to be a little bit tricky, and frankly, you need to be a little bit unhealthy.
What I’m calling “stealth calories” are just what most people would tell you are the worst of the worst calories. These are the foods that have the highest possible caloric density and that can be consumed in large quantities without triggering your body’s natural safeguards against over-eating. These are oils, dairy, and simple, processed carbohydrates (e.g. wheat flour, table sugar, corn syrup). These are things that make you fat (OK, oils and dairy don’t necessarily make you fat, but you get the idea). When you’re trying to gain weight, “bad” calories are actually helpful, and so I’m going to call them “stealth” calories because they certainly aren’t “good” calories, but they do have the peculiar benefit of passing through your stomach almost undetected — i.e. without making you feel satiated.
I want you to know that I was eating while I wrote this. I ate a Number 7 (chicken quesadilla and crunchy taco), a fiery taco (which, by the way, was fantastic), and a 16 oz Sierra Mist. That’s 1050 calories, not counting the hot sauce and fish oil that I took with that meal. This meal was consumed within half an hour of squatting heavy (I’m phasing into a Smolov squat cycle).
Look at the plate. It doesn’t look like that much food, does it? And the important thing is that it didn’t feel like that much food when I ate it. I think I still have room for some spinach and half a chicken breast.
So, let’s dissect this meal. In terms of most dietary recommendations — from Paleolithic eating, to Zone, to plain common sense — the quality of the calories in this meal are horrible. The bulk of these calories are highly processed, have a high glycemic loading, are high in sodium, and low in fiber. But that is precisely why the quantity of calories in this meal is so wonderfully high, and why those stealth calories can be consumed without producing too much of the satiated feeling of a distended stomach. All the simple carbohydrates, are going to make me feel extremely lethargic in about an hour, which is OK because by then I’ll be winding down to go to sleep. Finally, it is worth noting that prior to this meal, I only ate comparatively high-quaility calories throughout the day. (NOTE: Today’s meals were uncharacteristically low on vegetables, but I can make up for that tomorrow, on a non-training day when I don’t have to worry quite so much about the quantity of calories.)
Breakfast = smoothie made with two cups of tropical fruit, two scoops of protein powder (22 grams of protein per scoop), one tablespoon of olive oil, 1/2 cup of milk, and 2 tablespoons of coconut-peanut butter on the side.
Lunch = four boiled eggs, half a banana, one cup of “fancy” mixed nuts (no peanuts…because I’m worth it)
Pre-workout snack = protein shake (42 grams of protein) and half a banana.
What are the general lessons here?
- Consume large meals of stealth calories to enable strategic over-eating that will actually shock your body out of its current equilibrium. It is hard to over-eat when your meals consist of broccoli, spaghetti squash and chicken breast. It is very easy to over-eat when your meals consist of pizza dipped in olive oil.
- Consuming a large meal of stealth calories will make you feel like crap, so reserve those calories for the end of the day and the post-workout part of the day so that you don’t have sugar crashes interfering with your work or your training. This is also consistent with a strategy of carb back-loading (CBL) that tends to produce positive results in men in terms of increased muscle mass without large amounts of concomitant fat-gain.
- When consuming whole foods, put them in a blender so that you can consume more of them in a sitting without feeling full, and take a digestive enzyme supplement along with them to make sure that your body actually absorbs the nutrients from the 900 to 1000 calorie smoothie that you’re going to drink.
- Virgin oils and milk are god’s gift to skinny people. They are stealth calories that are actually also good calories. I don’t tolerate milk very well anymore. If you do tolerate milk, you should drink as much whole milk as you can stand throughout the day. Set your sights on consuming a gallon of milk every day. Find your oil of choice (e.g. coconut, olive, red-palm) and add it to everything you eat.
It’s possible to eat high-calorie meals that consist of mostly good calories, but this takes more cooking and creativity, and in the end, it requires the will-power to keep eating long after you begin to feel full.
Finally, there are four noble truths that must be accepted if you are truly dedicated to gaining a significant amount of bodyweight and keeping it on:
– seriously disrupting your body’s equilibrium ultimately isn’t healthy. Attaining serious/elite fitness goals often requires the acceptance of some level of un-health.
– unless you’re a teenager, some of the weight that you gain will be fat. At least temporarily, you will just be another guy who doesn’t have a six-pack.
– your friends and family outside the gym will think you’re insane, and most of your PaleoCrossfit friends will not understand or respect your decision.
– For a year or so, most of your disposable income will go toward food and new clothing. You will outgrow most of your clothes, and if you’re doing it right, you will probably bust out the crotch in a few pairs of pants.
In the words of a famous fitness blogger who doesn’t like commas, “Go eat people!”