I m fed up with looking like a beanpole - how can I put on weight?
Many of you no doubt will want to throw an entire cheesecake at Sally Nguyen, the reader who wrote to us because she is unhappy with her natural
skinniness (see box, below).
It is true that she is in the minority - more than 60 per cent of the population carries excess blubber - but her cries of help are as compelling as any
from a woman or man wanting to lose a stone or so.
Whether you're a woman in search of some feminine curves, a man wanting to become beefier or a teenager keen to shake off your impersonation of
a beanpole, sitting on your backside and feasting on takeaway pizza, crisps and fizzy drinks is not the route to a fuller physique.
The scales may shift upwards, but most of the weight gain will be fat. Your cholesterol levels and blood pressure could rise, your salt intakes soar and
your liver could end up with fatty deposits, making it harder for it to complete its routine detoxing.
Instead the goal is to gain mostly lean body mass - muscle, in other words. This may sound scary if you're a woman who fears resembling the
Incredible Hulk. But, unless you take illegal steroids, you'll struggle to look muscle bound as you need plenty of the male hormone testosterone to
achieve serious bulk.
Laying down new muscle is easier for men, but both sexes can achieve it. You need to eat more of the right kind of calories while regularly following a
programme of strength training exercises (see Matt Roberts opposite). This combination allows your muscles to grow at an optimal rate which for
women will lead to a gain of about 1lb to 2lb a month; 3lb to 4lb for men.
It won't happen quickly and will depend to some extent on your genetics, body type and hormonal balance.
How many extra calories?
Women who want to gain the right kind of muscle weight must follow Matt's plan and attempt to eat an extra 500 calories a day. Men need to follow the
strength training plan and eat a further 700 calories a day. It takes about 2,500 extra calories to gain 1lb of muscle (many of the extra calories you eat
are used for digestion and are lost through heat due to the extra physical activity).
A pre-programme dietary shake-up
Before you increase the number of calories you eat, do an inventory on your current intake and weed out the foods that provide lots of energy but few
nutrients. In other words, dump biscuits, cakes, fatty puddings, sugary drinks and most fast foods. Instead, have larger servings of healthy main meals.
How to boost your good calories
You don't need to eat steak every night or invest in expensive protein shakes to gain muscle mass. The extra protein you need in order to support
Matt's training plan will be met by the extra food you are eating. The extra calories you need can come mostly from carbohydrate-rich foods, 20 of
which are listed below in 100-calorie servings to help you reach your target of 500 or 700 extra every day.
And when I reach my target?
You need to test the water to find a way to balance your energy in with your energy out . The British Nutrition Foundation says that if you've built up
more lean mass - muscles - you'll need to keep exercising.
You'll also need to take in more calories than when you started your weight gain regimen because your metabolic rate will have increased. But don't
panic if your weight changes a bit. A little variation is not a problem while you're working out the best balance for you, the foundation says.
Remember too that you should eat regularly, as this makes sure that your muscles are always getting the fuel they need to grow and develop. In
practice this means eating three meals a day and at least two snacks.
Amanda Ursell is the Times nutritionist (amandaursell.com)
While plenty of us struggle to lose weight, others perpetually fight to increase theirs - because of their genes, illness, an eating disorder or even having
had a baby (though anyone struggling to lose post-baby fat may find this hard to imagine).
Women who are a natural tube shape, with few feminine curves, may feel that their ability to dress, or indeed to undress, is diminished.
For some men, a perceived lack of manliness can be to blame for a host of problems including bullying, a lost job promotion or a failed relationship.
The puny male is viewed as weak in all ways and suffers from society's attitudes as much today as he might have done in times past when physical
strength really was crucial. Putting on healthy weight is not easy. Gaining fat is straightforward, but gaining lean weight is a slow process where diet
and exercise must be planned together.
Expect weight to be added slowly. And be patient - once the weight is on it is relatively easy to keep it there.
The main problem is this: muscles burn calories, exercise creates bigger or more activated muscles, and the higher the level of activity the greater the
number of calories you burn - so the harder it is to get bigger.
As you try to gain weight it gets harder to maintain, as your metabolism rises. Breaking this vicious cycle must be done carefully. You need to ensure
that your heart and lungs are exercised for your health, but also because a healthy system will feed calories to your lean muscle mass more efficiently.
The answer is not to simply cut out cardio work, but to use resistance training - even though it will raise your metabolism - because it is the exercise
that will increase your actual mass, if done correctly.
For your cardio work, the answer is small bursts of exercise, perhaps 15 to 20-minute spells, three to four days per week at a moderate to easy
Walk, slow jog or cycle at a comfortable level so that you break into a sweat but don't get exhausted. This will keep your body healthy but will avoid
excess calorie depletion.
Use a weight-training programme that encourages muscle-building rather than working on pure strength. It seems logical that lifting very heavy
weights will pay off handsomely, but if the weights are so big that you can lift them only five to eight times, they will increase your strength and your
metabolism, but not necessarily your size.
A range of 10 to 15 repetitions, with a long rest between every set, is most effective. Focusing on the chest, back, thighs, bottom and hamstrings - and
using rests of up to 90 seconds between each set - will break down the muscle fibres and lead them to redevelop in a larger size.
The size of weights required differs from individual to individual, but they should be heavy enough to make you struggle to finish the last two repetitions
in each set.
The routine below focuses on the major muscle groups and will avoid any specific building of the arms so that women can retain a more feminine
appearance. For men, the routine will work very effectively, and you may want to throw in some arm exercises too, such as bicep curls.
Case Study: 'Help, I'm 5ft 6in and only weigh 7 stone'
Sally Nguyen, 50, weighs 7st which she feels is far too little for someone who is 5ft 6in tall. Sally had read Amanda Ursell's weight-loss menus in Body
Soul and wrote to her asking for advice on how to do the opposite. But she wanted to gain weight healthily rather than by gorging on cakes, crisps and
At the moment I have no body stores to rely on ... Please give me some ideas ... I am sure there are others like me who are fed up of looking like
beanpoles, she says in her letter.
Sally's daily diet consisted of fruit juice and fruit compote or a bowl of cereal for breakfast and a piece of carrot cake or biscuits mid-morning. Lunch
was typically a chicken and avocado sandwich or a bowl of soup with water to drink. She would have fruit or yoghurt as a mid-afternoon snack. Dinner
might be homemade lamb burgers with potatoes and vegetables or a Thai green chicken curry with rice. Pudding was cake, crumble or ice-cream.
Amanda spotted that while Sally was eating an average of about 1,500 calories a day, her intake was not consistent. On a day when she had the
lower-calorie choices (fruit compote, biscuits, soup, fruit, lamb burgers and ice-cream) Sally was eating only 921 calories with 34g of protein and 29g
But if she had cereal, carrot cake, a chicken and avocado sandwich, yoghurt, curry and crumble, her total intake could rise to 2,149 with 93g of protein
and 70g of fat.
Amanda advised Sally that to gain 1lb to 2lb a month she needs a steady 2,000 calories a day. Also, all the calories need to count nutritionally to
ensure that she gets not just enough calories and protein, but minerals such as calcium, needed for bone strength, and iron for energy to help fuel her
An ideal breakfast for Sally would be a glass of fruit juice, muesli with grated apple and semi-skimmed milk and a slice of toast with peanut butter. At
mid-morning, she could have two oatcakes with slices of Cheddar cheese and a pear. Protein-packed sandwich choices for lunch, besides her
favourite chicken and avocado, could be beef and rocket, ham and tomato, or tuna and sweetcorn, with a fromage frais to follow. Two slices of toast
with a banana would be a good mid-afternoon snack.
Dinner could be Sally's regular choices of lamb burgers with potatoes and vegetables, chicken curry or lean roast beef, lamb or chicken with baked
potato and vegetables, plus yoghurt and fruit for pudding.
That would add up to 2,044 calories, 101g protein, 55g fat and 17g saturated fat.
20 easy ways to eat an extra 100 calories
A large banana
Two small oranges
Two large peaches
Six dried apricots (fully dried, not partially dehydrated)
A large glass of orange juice(270ml)
A grande (300ml) skimmed milk latte or cappuccino
100g low fat fruit yoghurt
80g fruit fromage frais
Slice of wholemeal bread (45g)
Half a large pitta bread
A toasted crumpet with sugar-free jam
Half a toasted teacake with sugar-free jam
Two tablespoons of Swiss-style muesli
One slice of malt loaf
30g extra pasta (dried weight) at meal times
Two extra tablespoons of cooked rice at meal times
100ml of lentil soup
A 20g piece of chocolate (just under a third of a small 54g bar)
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