Top Foods To Help Seniors Gain Weight: Dietitians Weigh In

senior couple fruit grocery store

What are the best food options to help older adults gain weight?

Being underweight can contribute to serious medical problems for seniors, including osteoporosis and fractures, malnutrition, decreased energy, a weakened immune system, and a higher risk of complications after surgery.

It’s common for seniors to experience a decreased appetite as they get older, which can make it difficult for some seniors to maintain a healthy weight. If your appetite has decreased, it’s important to monitor your body weight and your diet to make sure you are getting the calories you need.

If you aren’t sure if you are at a healthy weight or not, check out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) body mass index (BMI). This index classifies people as overweight, underweight, or at a healthy weight by using a calculation that takes a person’s height and weight into consideration. According to the index, people are underweight if they have a BMI that is less than 18.5.

So, what should you do if you are underweight? Sure, you could load up on the chocolate cake and potato chips, and that might make your weight increase, but then you are just consuming unhealthy foods that aren’t good for your body.

If you are underweight, you should eat high-quality foods that will help you gain the weight you need to stay healthy. We talked with seven nutrition experts to get their tips on which foods are the best options for seniors who want to put on some weight, and we are sharing their recommendations below.

Disclaimer

This content is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment for health problems. You should talk with your healthcare provider before making any dietary changes. Your doctor can provide you with the best advice for you, taking into consideration your specific situation and any medical conditions you may have.

1. Eat Lots of High-Quality, Lean Protein

Coral Dabarera Edelson, MS, RD: CoralRD.com

Weight loss, particularly muscle loss, becomes an issue as we age. The body’s protein needs to increase after age 65. Eat plenty of high-quality lean protein with meals and snacks. Organic, grass-fed, full-fat cottage cheese is light but packs in the protein, and can be added as a side to meals or as part of a snack. An over-easy or poached egg has 7g of protein and is a tasty and easy way to top off many dishes including pastas, stir-fries, salads, casseroles, and more. If necessary, turn to high-quality protein shakes to get enough protein. After addressing your protein intake, you can further increase calories by adding more healthy fats to meals such as avocado, extra virgin olive oil, organic, grass-fed butter or ghee, nut-butters, and organic, grass-fed sour cream.

2. Eat Frequent, Smaller Meals with Healthy Foods Throughout the Day

Nicole DeMasi Malcher, MS, RDN, CDCES: NicoleDemasi.com

Gaining weight can be difficult when you don’t have much of an appetite or if you’re taking certain medications that affect your sense of taste or smell. 

If you get full quickly or can’t eat a lot at once, I recommend eating small, frequent meals throughout the day. Include a variety of fruits and vegetables for a healthy immune system, brain & heart. Healthy weight gain is all about adding calories from healthy fats. If a lack of appetite prevents you from gaining weight, you can easily consume extra calories with just a small amount of fat. Foods that are great for the brain can also aid in weight gain when added to the diet. 

  1. Smoothies
    1. Smoothies can pack a real punch of nutrients in a small portion. Add 1-2 tablespoons of high-calorie healthy fats like peanut butter, almond butter, chia seeds, and ground flaxseeds for the added brain health benefits. 
    2. Smoothies are great when you don’t have much of an appetite. They also help add some fluids to your daily fluid intake. 
    3. There are hundreds of smoothie recipes you can try. 
    4. This is my favorite easy smoothie recipe: 
      • 1 cup greens like spinach 
      • 1 cup antioxidant-rich berries (fresh or frozen) – I recommend blueberries or cherries
      • ½ banana (fresh or frozen)
      • 1-1½ cups unsweetened soy milk (more or less for desired texture)
      • 1-2 Tbsp nut butter or a handful of nuts
      • 1-2 Tbsp chia seeds or ground flaxseeds 
      • Few ice cubes 
      • Optional: add in a scoop of high-quality unsweetened pea protein or whey protein powder
  2. Nuts, nut butters, and seeds: 
    1. 1/2 cup has about 250 calories.
    2. Add nuts and seeds to smoothies, salads, bowls, on top of Asian dishes.
    3. Use 1-2 Tbsp of nut butter on toast or crackers instead of regular butter. You’re never too old for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole-wheat bread!
    4. Eat a handful as a snack instead of a less nutritious snack like chips or candy.
    5. Choose walnuts and pumpkin seeds for the added brain-boosting benefits.
    6. If you have a bowel disease or diverticulitis, choose the smooth nut butters to be cautious.
  3. Avocado 
    1. Avocado is a nutrient-dense food high in fiber, antioxidants, and potassium. 1 cup has about 250 calories! 
    2. Try adding it to your breakfast in place of butter or margarine on toast, with an omelet, or as avocado toast.
    3. Add sliced avocado to things like salads, tacos, casseroles, and chili. 
    4. You can even add it to a smoothie.
  4. Full-fat yogurt 
    1. Yogurt is a quick and easy snack with the added benefit of probiotics, as long as you can tolerate dairy, 
    2. Try combining 1 cup of full fat or 2% Greek yogurt with ½-1 cup of fresh or frozen berries, banana, peaches, or other fruit. Top with 1 Tbsp of nuts and seeds for even more calories and healthy fat.
  5. Healthy oils
    1. My top choices for oils are extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, and coconut oil. 
    2. Drizzle extra olive oil on salads or steamed or roasted veggies for a quick calorie boost. Each teaspoon adds almost 150 calories. 
    3. Reserve coconut oil for baking and limit to just a couple times each week to avoid the high saturated fat content.

It can be confusing when you’re trying to gain weight while following another diet for a condition like heart disease, diabetes, or kidney disease. These dietary guidelines may contradict each other and make it seem overwhelming. That’s why I recommend working with a dietitian to discuss the best and safest diet for you. Before adding any new foods or supplements to your diet, discuss it with your doctor or dietitian.

3. Increase Your Calorie Intake and Healthy Fats

Katie Dodd, MS, RDN, CSG, LD, FAND: TheGeriatricDietician.com

Foods high in calories and fat are the best food options to help seniors gain weight. Avocados, full-fat dairy, and nuts are great foods that can add calories and help with weight gain. 

4. Eat Calorie-Dense Foods with Anti-Inflammatory Properties

Caitlin Beale, MS, RDN: Caitlin Beale Wellness

Best food options for helping seniors gain weight:

  1. Avocados.  Filled with healthy fats and calorically dense, avocados are soft and easy to add to foods, including smoothies and dips. 
  2. Olive oil.  Add olive oil to foods for a healthy, anti-inflammatory way to gain weight.  One tablespoon of oil can add ~120 calories.
  3. Nut butter.  Almond butter, cashew butter, or peanut butter are also delicious, high in calories, and easy to add to a piece of toast, to smoothies, or even to sauces.  They are also filled with healthy, anti-inflammatory fats. 

5. Combat a Poor Appetite by Consuming More Nutrient-Dense Foods and Less Liquid at Mealtime

Jen Powers, MS, RDN: Soultrition

Seniors often experience a decline in their appetite.  If this is the case, small, frequent meals packed with nutrients are recommended.  Be sure to include a good source of protein and healthy fat at meals.  Liquids should be consumed sparingly with meals to prevent false feelings of fullness.  If you have medical conditions, you should always check with your doctor about what foods to avoid.   

6. Add Supplements to Your High-Calorie Diet

Leonila Campos RD, CLE: Fueled By Leo

The best food options to help seniors gain weight are your high-calorie foods such as healthy fats found in avocados, nuts, seeds, cold-pressed oils. Additionally, increasing calories by adding extra lean protein, additional portions of whole grains, or dairy products. Lastly, exploring options for oral nutrition supplementation (such as Ensure, Resource, Nepro, Glucerna, etc.) considering any health and medical conditions.  

7. Get Your Protein from Real Food in Its Natural Form

Leandro Pucci MS, CNS®, CKNS®, LDN, ACSM-PT: Leandro Pucci Nutrition

Seniors tend to lose the sense of taste, so eating may become not such a pleasurable thing to do. The lack of good nutrition and activity results in loss of muscle mass and hence weight loss. In my opinion, the essential macronutrient for seniors is to get enough protein in their food. But most important is to get quality protein from real food or high-quality supplements like whey or complete vegan protein.

I believe that the closest to natural form the food choices, the better.

Conclusion

Maintaining a healthy weight is important for seniors, who can have an increased risk of health problems if they are underweight. It can be challenging for some older people to gain weight and keep their weight at a healthy level. By choosing nutrient-dense foods, lean meats, and healthy fats, such as avocados, nut butters, and olive oil, on your next trip to the grocery store, you are well on your way to a healthy body weight.

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