Simple Strategies to Boost Calories for Weight Gain

Simple Strategies to Boost Calories for Weight Gain

By Jill Castle, MS, RDN  | Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Some swimmers have a hard time gaining weight. They work hard in the pool, eat throughout the day, yet still struggle with maintaining, or even gaining weight. 

I know this because I see this challenge with some of my own young clients. 

There are typically two ways I tackle this challenge, and I often use both strategies together. 

Strategy One

Strategy One is all about building structure to the eating schedule. Just like the swimmer has a time for practice, there should also be set times for eating. I encourage the young swimmer to eat every 3 to 4 hours, which provides several opportunities to consume the calories he needs, but also offers a regular influx of nutrients to the body. 

In my experience, I see long periods of time in a swimmer’s day where a 5 or 6-hour gap exists without food. For example, a swimmer might have an early lunch and no other opportunity to eat until after school. Or, the swimmer has a mid-afternoon snack but doesn't eat again until late evening after practice. 

I like to see the underweight swimmer step up his eating sessions, aiming for 3 meals and 3 snacks each day. This may mean adding an extra snack during the day and perhaps one before bedtime.

Strategy Two 
To take weight gain up a notch, swimmers should make every calorie count when eating or drinking. That means maximizing nutrition whenever possible. For example, instead of water, encourage a sports drink or milk or other calorie-containing beverage. Instead of low- or non-fat foods such as yogurt, cheese or milk, switch to full fat items.

Although some parents and swimmers will try to “eat more,” by incrementally increasing their portions of food, this doesn’t work for everyone. In fact, if your underweight swimmer is also a picky eater, overwhelming him with more food or pressuring him to eat more may work against your goals of weight gain by turning off his appetite and making his picky eating worse.

Instead, food can be modified during preparation to increase the overall calorie content. 

Here are some of my favorite ways to boost the calories in food:

Double-dress pasta. After boiling pasta, drain it and toss it in olive or canola oil before adding a sauce. One tablespoon of oil is about 120 calories.

Spread fat. Butter bread when making sandwiches like peanut butter and jelly for an extra calorie boost. Smash an avocado on bread for added flavor and calories. Dip bread in olive oil or butter. One half of an avocado is about 160 calories; one tablespoon of butter is equivalent to 100 calories.

Use whole-fat dairy products
.  Whole milk and yogurt and full-fat cheeses, sour cream, and cream cheese can add up to significant calories by the end of the day.

Cook with fats. Saute lower-calorie foods like vegetables in oil to increase the calories. Toss potatoes and sweet potatoes in oil and roast. 

Include juices. Kids get the green light on up to 12 ounces of 100% juice per day, so try grape, orange and other varieties to include an extra 200 calories.

Encourage nuts (if tolerated). All versions of nuts pack calories, so encourage a handful here and there. Top ice cream, yogurt, and oatmeal, or mix them with dried fruit for a snack. An ounce of mixed nuts (~1/4 cup) provides about 170 calories.

Reconstituting? Use milk (or alternate milks) instead of water. Make cream soups, oatmeal, cream of wheat, or other food items with milk instead of water to punch up the calories.

Add nut butter. A spoonful of nut butter is an easy way to add in extra calories. Two tablespoons of peanut butter is about 190 calories. Blend nut butter into smoothies, or heat up in the microwave and drizzle over apple slices or ice cream.

These two strategies pack a powerful punch when used together, and are typically enough to set weight gain in motion. Of course, not all of these food modifications will work for every swimmer. Pick and choose the ones that are realistic and would appeal to the swimmer. 

P.S. Your swimmer won’t have to eat this way forever. Once his weight is steady and in a healthy range, you can scale back on some of the high calorie additions.

Jill Castle, MS, RDN is a registered dietitian, childhood nutritionist, and youth sports nutrition expert. She is the author of Eat Like a Champion: Performance Nutrition for Your Young Athlete. Learn more about Jill at and check out her free list of 70 Awesome Pre-Workout Snacks for Kids.



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