Nobody wants to hear you complain about having difficulty gaining weight, but the fact remains: if your goal is to gain muscle, you probably need to eat more than you’ve been eating. This can be a surprisingly difficult feat to master, especially since the vast majority of articles about dieting are about how to suppress your appetite instead of how to stoke it.
It’s worth pointing out that a lack of appetite can sometimes be a symptom of health issues like irritable bowel syndrome, fatty liver disease, or another complication so be sure to speak with your doctor if you have concerns.
For the average person who is struggling with perpetually feeling full while trying to gain muscle, these tips are for you.
Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it shouldn’t take the place of advice and/or supervision from a medical professional. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. Speak with your physician if you have any concerns or before beginning any new workout regimen.
1) Fruit Juice at Every Meal
If you pay attention to the diets of strongmen like Hafthor Bjornsson — the kinds of guys who need at least 8,000 calories per day — you’ll often see fruit juice served with their meals. People interested in healthy eating are usually told early on to Never Drink Your Calories and while that’s smart for weight loss, juice can be a great way to consume a few dozen extra grams of carbs at a meal without any fiber to fill you up.
Plus, the commercials are right: juice is typically a great source of Vitamin C. Drink it with your meals instead of between them if you’re concerned about blood sugar spikes.
2) Consume More MCT Oil
If you’re not too concerned about your fat intake or if consuming a lot of fat makes you feel weighed down, you might want to consider supplementing with medium chain triglycerides. This type of fat, in addition to potentially being good for digestive health, digests a lot more quickly than other fats and can minimize that “heavy” feeling some experience from fat bombs.(1) Drop it in shakes, salad dressings, coffee, or cereal.
3) Drink More Water
Given water has no calories, this one might be counterintuitive. But if you’re increasing your calories slowly — and you should be — many find it useful to drink a lot of water with their meals because it helps to stretch the stomach and prepare it for more volume over time. This is also an easier change to your diet than constantly mixing shakes and preparing food, so it’s a relatively easy early step into bulking. Totally optional and not quite as science backed, but anecdotally, many find it handy.
4) Eat More Frequent Meals
We’re not just saying “eat more calories,” we’re suggesting you spread your calorie intake over the day. Eating more often doesn’t “stoke your metabolism” or “make you burn more fat,” as countless bodybuilding magazines claimed in the ‘90s. In fact, eating more often appears to be counterproductive to weight loss, even if you’re consuming the same number of calories as you would be with three meals. Why? It seems to make you hungrier.
It could be because of ghrelin, an appetite-increasing hormone sometimes called “hunger’s timekeeper.” The body releases ghrelin when it’s expecting food: eat more frequently, research suggests, you’ll be hungry more frequently.(2) Snack more.
[Learn more: 10 Nutrition Tips for Intelligent Muscle Gain.]
5) Ingest Cannabis
It’s hard to ignore the research — and the average anecdotal report — that pot stimulates the appetite.(3) Studies have suggested that it can increase ghrelin and leptin, hormones associated with appetite, it may cause your olfactory bulb to find food tastier and better smelling, and it could prompt your hypothalamus to signal that you’re hungry even when your stomach is full.(4)
The appetite boosting properties are a big reason why cannabis is prescribed to patients who are undergoing chemotherapy, but of course, it’s not accessible to everybody.(5) A lot of people experience anxiety, nausea, and other ill effects, plus it’s just not legal in most states. If it’s legal and you like it, though… talk to your doctor.
If you’re thinking of taking the route of the more widespread cannabinoid called CBD, which is easy to buy over the counter in the United States, note that right now research doesn’t suggest that it increases appetite are reliably as THC.(6)
[Learn more in our complete guide to supplementing CBD.]
6) Drink More Shakes
This entry is a combination of “increasing appetite” and “increasing calories,” since most people want the former to achieve the latter. Yes, adding fruit and veggies to your protein shakes can make them less filling than chewing them up on your own, but it can also make it a lot easier to consume a lot of fat. Making combinations of coconut milk, MCT oil, nut butters, and/or avocado can make it pretty easy to hit over a thousand calories.
7) Make Sure You’re Exercising
Research conflicts as to whether or not there’s a type of exercise that’s most effective for increasing appetite. (Although many will tell you that swimming reigns supreme.) Some studies have shown those who don’t exercise have poorly regulated hormones related to hunger (like ghrelin), but when they start an exercise program they start eating closer to the number of calories the body requires.(7)(8)
For people who overeat, exercise can come with issues that can exacerbate the problem, like a belief that you’ve “earned” more calories. But for those who have trouble eating enough, exercise may help to regulate ghrelin and keep your appetite at an appropriate level.
8) Have a Little Junk Food
If you’re hitting all your requirements for calories, macronutrients, and micronutrients, there’s really nothing wrong with a few hundred calories of ice cream or chocolate bars. It’s astounding how easy it is to consume 400 calories of Snickers versus 400 calories of chicken breasts and hey, you deserve the treat.
9) Eat Less Fiber
Fiber digests slowly and helps you feel more full, making it a great part of a weight loss diet and not so great for people struggling with low appetite. Pick white rice over brown rice and lower-fiber fruits and veggies like bananas, skinless potatoes, melons, and stone fruits.
The recommended daily intake for adults is about 25 grams for females and 38 grams for males. If you’re keeping fiber relatively low but still eating a lot of calories from whole foods, there’s a decent chance you’ll hit that mark. If not, consider a fiber supplement like psyllium husk at the end of the day.
10) Manage Your Anxiety
While some find stress increases their appetite, research has suggested that for some people, even mild anxiety and depression makes it more difficult to eat. An increase in the stress hormone cortisol can increase acid production in the stomach and thereby decrease appetite. Countless books and PhDs have been written on this topic so you’re unlikely to learn the secret to beating anxiety in this article, but managing stressors, eating on a schedule, getting enough sleep, meditation, and avoiding nicotine — it’s a powerful appetite suppressant — can all go a long way.(9) Above all, of course, speak to a doctor if your anxiety is a real problem.
Think about training yourself to eat more like training yourself to lift more: you need to consistently put in the effort. When it comes to food, it’s not fun to go from undereating to overeating. Your stomach might hurt. It’s uncomfortable. But if you put in the effort every day and pair your efforts with a solid workout program, your stomach will expand and your body will start to expect the calories.
In the end, consistency is always the path to success.
Featured image via Studio 22 Olas and AnikonaAnn on Shutterstock.
1. Takeuchi H, et al. The application of medium-chain fatty acids: edible oil with a suppressing effect on body fat accumulation. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr. 2008;17 Suppl 1:320-3.
2. Leidy HJ, et al. The influence of higher protein intake and greater eating frequency on appetite control in overweight and obese men. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2010 Sep;18(9):1725-32.
3. Kirkham TC, et al. Cannabinoids and appetite: food craving and food pleasure. Int Rev Psychiatry. 2009 Apr;21(2):163-71.
4. Riggs PK, et al. A pilot study of the effects of cannabis on appetite hormones in HIV-infected adult men. Brain Res. 2012 Jan 11;1431:46-52.
5. Abrams DI. Integrating cannabis into clinical cancer care. Curr Oncol. 2016 Mar;23(2):S8-S14.
6. Corroon J, et al. A Cross-Sectional Study of Cannabidiol Users. Cannabis Cannabinoid Res. 2018 Jul 1;3(1):152-161.
7. Martins C, et al. Effect of chronic exercise on appetite control in overweight and obese individuals. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2013 May;45(5):805-12.
8. Larson-Meyer DE, et al. Influence of running and walking on hormonal regulators of appetite in women. J Obes. 2012;2012:730409.
9. Mineur YS, et al. Nicotine decreases food intake through activation of POMC neurons. Science. 2011 Jun 10;332(6035):1330-2.