Caloric surplus foods are foods that make weight gain easier – because they’re calorie dense, low in satiety, and/or provide essential nutrients for high-quality weight gain.
Today, we’re looking at some of the best calorie dense foods for weight gain – and why you should prioritize them in your weight gain diet.
How To Gain Weight With Calorie Surplus Foods
You gain weight when your energy intake – calorie intake – is higher than your energy output. Energy output is the result of your basal metabolic rate (the energy your body needs to survive) combined with your movement, activity, and exercise levels.
You can get an idea of your maintenance needs using a TDEE calculator.
This gives you a vague measure of the amount of calories per day you need, and you can use this as a baseline. You gain weight when you eat more calories per day than this maintenance level.
Calorie dense food makes this easier because they contribute more calories per serving – which makes it easier to eat a higher total energy value and build calorie surplus without eating more meals. This can help you gain weight healthily – if you use the right things.
What Foods to Eat When in a Caloric Surplus?
High calorie foods are energy-rich, making them the easiest and most effective way to gain weight. They have more calories per gram than other options, and they may even have low-satiety, making it easy to eat more calories without getting too full.
This can be a great way to provide the energy you need to gain muscle mass, support strength training, or maintain a high activity lifestyle. This makes high calorie foods an important part of any fitness goal at some point.
It’s also important that there caloric surplus foods are healthy foods that are also calorie dense. Being high calorie does not make a food unhealthy – as there’s a cross-relationship between quality and quantity.
Some foods are healthy with lots of calories, while others are low calorie but unhealthy.
Healthy Weight Gain: Quality Over Quantity?
The weight gain potential of high calorie foods breaks down into the quantity of calories per serving and the quality of nutrition values they offer.
This allows you to get high quality weight gain from good food choices, but also has some foods offering less healthy weight gain.
For example, avocados and full fat milk are both weight gain caloric surplus foods. The avocado is typically richer in important vitamins and minerals, while the milk has a narrower variety of essential nutrients.
How Many Calories Per Day For Healthy Weight Gain?
You gain weight healthily when you use a small calorie surplus – around 300-500 per day for the average person – to build lean muscle mass, while avoiding fat mass gains.
This calorie intake is great for pacing your lean muscle mass growth, and also helps you maintain healthy energy levels for strength training and other workouts.
You can build muscle at a set rate – and you want to avoid excessive calories above this level. High calorie food should be a feature regularly in your diet, but shouldn’t be all your food options – you still need nutrient dense foods like vegetables to provide vitamins and minerals for health purposes.
Protein For Weight Gain
Protein is the other factor you need to consider for high calorie foods – it determines how much of your weight gain will be lean muscle mass and how much will be fat mass. This balance should always aim to build muscle and reduce fat gains. (1)
Higher protein diets build more muscle mass at the same calorie intake, which is why bodybuilders don’t just eat high calorie foods.
They’d be eating coconut oil for every meal if it was all about calories per serving – sometimes you need to consider the protein content of foods to get the best quality weight gain.
This often means protein shakes and other protein supplements, chicken breast, chia seeds, low fat greek yogurt, and oily fish (salmon, for example).
These provide extra calories but they’re mainly there for the health benefits and to support daily intake of protein.
Caloric Surplus Foods For Weight Gain: FAQ
Gaining weight can be confusing if you don’t know the food options you should be focusing on. In this FAQ, we’re going to look at how to make gaining weight easier, as well as some of the most common questions about calories, food choices, and meal plan basics.
How Do I Know How Many Calories I Need Per Day?
You can get a vague idea of your calorie needs using a TDEE Calculator, which we discussed above. It’s only an estimate and you need to adjust up or down based on your experiences and what changes happen on the scales.
TDEE+500 (your maintenance calories per day + 500 extra calories) is a good place to start for weight gain.
You may want to use a smaller calorie intake (300 calorie surplus) if you’re smaller or weigh less, and a more muscular person may need more calories per day (e.g. up to 800 calorie surplus) for the best weight gain.
Start with the TDEE and experiment based on how you feel, perform, and the changes you see on the scale. Tweak towards your personal preferences and needs!
How Do You Eat A Surplus Of Calories?
To gain weight, you just need to eat more – you can reach a calorie surplus by either eating larger portions of the same food, or using high calorie foods for weight gain, instead of your normal dietary choices.
Swapping chicken breast out for medium-lean cuts of steak can be a really good example. Equally, swap out brown rice (very filling) for potatoes or pasta, which are typically easier to eat more of.
You can also add some ‘luxury foods’ that are high calorie foods – like more fruit sugar (combined with full fat yogurt), milk chocolate, dark chocolate, or other small amounts of ‘junk food’.
You need to hit your caloric intake goals, so don’t be too precious about getting enough calories from junk food and other high calorie foods you consider unhealthy!
How Can I Eat 3000 Calories Per Day?
Eating 3000 calories per day isn’t as hard as people think. It’s only 1000 calories per meal, 3 times per day. A normal meal plan might put these values at 500 calories for breakfast, 1000 calories per lunch, and 1500 calories at dinner.
This is actually easy to achieve. Whole grains like oats are great for breakfast, or you can use full fat yogurt with milk chocolate or dark chocolate, or with fruit and granola.
You can add wheat crackers for more muscle building calories, or mix in a protein powder.
Lunch is easy with wraps, whole wheat bread sandwiches, prepared chicken and sweet potatoes with a healthy fat source, and others.
You can add homemade protein bars, high calorie fruits (like bananas), or even one cup of dried fruit to improve your calorie total.
What Foods Help You Gain Weight Fast?
You can increase weight with any food that is high calorie and/or full of protein. This means that “traditional” meals like steak and potatoes are great places to start – just look at the nutrition facts:
High calorie foods with plenty of protein are your main focus.
Homemade protein shakes with added whole grains, dried fruit, or other high calorie fruits (like blended banana or berries) can be an easy way to gain weight without spending much money.
How Many Calories Should I Eat Per Day For Calorie Surplus?
Most people should eat around 500 calories per day more than their TDEE (see above) to get the best benefits.
This isn’t too many calories for most people, and reduces some of the unwanted weight gain side effects like heart disease, especially when focusing on healthy fats like olive oil, coconut oil, and oily fish.
What Are The Best High Calorie Foods For Bulking?
Anything with a high calorie content is perfect for bulking and qualifies in caloric surplus foods. Popular choices include olive oil, almond butter and other nut butter, whole grains, homemade protein shakes, sweet potatoes, brown rice (though this is quite filling), full fat milk, and extra salad dressings on all kinds of meals.
Some underrated choices include sesame seeds, coconut oil, wilting leafy greens (like spinach), low fat greek yogurt (very high protein), and lean cuts of red meat are all great.
A good weight gain meal plan should include some of each of these foods mentioned, and their alternatives (e.g. chicken thigh, nut butter, dried fruits, and other muscle building foods).
These are all just examples of types of food – and the best approach is a half-lean protein source (usually meat), a carbohydrate source for extra calories, and some veggies.
Do You Need A 500 Calorie Surplus Each Day?
You need more calories per day than you use – but it doesn’t need to be specifically 500 calories over your maintenance. You can use any calorie intake that makes sense – you’ll need more if you’re more muscular, and less if you have less muscle mass on your frame.
The 500-calories extra guideline is just what works most reliably for most people most of the time. It ensures you’re not getting too many calories for your needs, and can be adjusted up or down easily to get to your personal needs without too much fuss.
Consider that 500 calories per day is also only a cup of dried fruits, a few glasses of full fat milk, or around 70g of healthy fats. This is all it takes to gain weight, because high calorie foods are super efficient.
What Happens If I Miss Weight Gain Calorie Goals?
It’s okay if you miss your weight gain calories for one day – the most important thing is weekly average calories. This means that – with a goal of 3000 calories per day – you’re going to need around 21,000 calories per week.
This can be a perfect 7, 3,000-calorie days. More likely, it will be days of 2500-3500, with a total average of 3,000.
This means that a low day and a high day even out. While you should try and be consistent, it’s okay for your calories per day to fluctuate as long as you’re roughly around the same numbers.
If you miss calories on one day, you may have short-term side effects like feeling low energy or having a bad workout. These come and go with the flux of your diet, so it’s still important to try and stay consistent – as well as for building good weight gain habits!
Conclusion: Our Final Thoughts
Gaining weight is simple but it takes time – and you can use high calorie surplus foods to make the weight gain process easier, more certain, and more effective.
With good protein sources, you can get high quality weight gain with very few changes to your diet.
Portion control and high calorie food are the two easiest ways to change your diet, and they can help you gain weight and build muscle in a healthy way.
This should rely on a combination of calorie dense food (and caloric surplus foods), but also nutrient dense foods like spinach and veggies to make sure you achieve healthy weight gain!
Take these tips as your starting point and remember that these rules of thumb need to tweak to your personal results. If you find you lose weight on a calorie intake, then you need to increase it – even if someone else might gain weight with the same calorie intake.
It’s deeply personal and what matters is starting with the right priorities, but adjusting as you go!
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Rohan Arora is a Certified Personal Trainer and Sports Nutritionist and has been actively involved in sports and fitness for over 8 years. He now leads the team of fitness specialists and personal trainers who help people around the world with personalized workout and nutrition plans, along with providing the right information on sports supplements.