“Top 11 Calorie Dense Foods for Weight Gain” was written by Cole Theobald. Edited/reviewed by Katie Dodd, MS, RDN, CSG, LD, FAND. Cole is a freelance writer and dietetic intern at Oregon Health Sciences University.
Calorie dense foods can be useful tools for preventing unintentional weight loss in older adults.
When older people lose weight, it can be a sign of infection or disease. And it can result in a loss of independence and an increase in injury risk. Preventing weight loss in the elderly is very important. One way to do so is to introduce calorie dense foods.
Why Calorie Dense Foods?
When we are young, a lot of health messaging that we are shown is focused on weight loss. As we age, however, weight loss can become dangerous. Even though someone might lose fat mass as they lose weight, they’re also probably losing muscle mass at the same time.
Loss of muscle mass in the elderly is associated with increased mortality, decreased independency, and reduced quality of life (1).
Calorie Dense Foods for Gaining Weight
There are a number of reasons that an older adult might start to lose weight. Changes in oral health status and appetite loss are two possible reasons.
These can be counteracted by introducing calorie dense foods and certain behavioral changes.
Calorie Dense Foods vs. Nutrient Dense Foods
All foods can be compared in two ways. First is calorie density, which means that a little bit of food has a lot of calories. For example, foods high in simple sugars or fats, like a donut, are considered calorie dense (high calorie).
The other way that you can compare foods is by nutrient density, which means that a little bit of food has a lot of nutritional value.
Most green leafy vegetables like spinach can be good examples of nutrient density, because they have a lot of value in their vitamins and minerals. But they don’t have a lot of calories.
Balancing Calories and Nutrients
Getting enough calories is important when trying to gain weight, but so is getting the right nutrients for health. There is still a risk of malnutrition even when you are getting enough calories because you might not be getting enough vitamins and minerals to keep you healthy.
In geriatric nutrition, it is important to find a good balance between calorie dense foods and nutrient dense foods.
It would be easy to keep weight on if all we had to do was eat cookies and cakes, but without proper protein, vitamins, and minerals, it would be impossible to stay healthy, despite the lack of weight loss.
Empty Calories and How to Use Them
Foods that are very calorie dense, but not very nutrient dense, like sodas, candies, or fats and oils, are called empty calories.
Empty calories can be useful if you know that you’ve been getting enough nutrition, but you need to increase your calorie count to avoid weight loss.
Be wary, though, of relying on too many empty calories. Excess dietary sugars, fats, and sodium, all of which can be regularly found in many common, empty calorie foods will still increase risk for developing or exacerbating chronic conditions.
Instead, focus on calorie dense foods that also offer nutrient density as well.
Gaining Weight and Increasing Lean Mass
When trying to gain weight, it is ideal to increase lean body mass as opposed to fat mass. Lean body mass includes muscles, as well as bones, organs, and water. Essentially everything in the body that isn’t fat is lean mass.
It is important for the geriatric population to focus on muscle mass and bone health. Bones serve as the anchors for muscles to work, and both are vital to performing the activities of daily living that can keep quality of life high.
The Importance of Protein
For the general, healthy adult population, the recommended intake of protein is about 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day (g/kg/day). For the elderly, however, this recommended intake increases to anywhere from 1.2 to 2.0 g/kg/day (2).
The reason for the increased protein needs in the elderly population has to do with decreased metabolic processes in the body related to muscle growth.
Without the added protein intake, muscle wouldn’t grow as fast as it was being broken down, and that would result in a loss of function (3).
Exercise and its Benefits for Lean Body Mass
Keeping active is another good way to keep muscles and bones healthy. Especially in conjunction with a healthy diet high in calories, protein, and nutrients.
Strength training has been shown to increase muscle mass in the elderly just as it would in young adults (4). It is also known that exercise in general, specifically weight bearing activities, are beneficial for maintaining bone health.
Because appetite loss is one of the reasons that older adults lose weight, it makes sense that if we could bring their appetite back up, they would stop losing weight, and potentially pack on the pounds they had lost.
Social Aspect of Meals
Meals are not a singular experience. For many people, the process of shopping for, preparing, serving, and eating food is a part of their social life. Too often, the elderly are denied the social aspects of their mealtimes.
This social isolation is strongly associated with appetite loss, a reduction in the number of daily meals, and decreased intake of fruits, vegetables, and protein foods (5). It is believed that this could be due to fewer meal-time cues, decreased motivation, and poor mental health status.
Remaking meals into a social behavior can be beneficial for the older adult’s appetite, whether by making meals a more pleasurable time or by ritualizing the process of getting ready for a meal.
By making meals fun again, the older adult could regain some of their lost appetite.
Oral Health and Appetite
Eating, ninety-nine percent of the time, happens at the mouth. However, as we age, the health of our mouths starts to decline.
Tooth loss, dentures, and xerostomia (dry mouth, due to lack of saliva production) can make it physically difficult to eat, decreasing appetite.
Increasing prevalence of oral injuries like sores and ulcers can make it physically painful to eat.
For tips on dental care in older adults, check out this blog post on the topic.
Textures of Food
Because of the shifting oral health in the elderly population, some people may have to eat texture modified foods. This can manifest in a few ways: finely minced foods, softened foods, or pureed foods.
Particularly with softened or pureed texture modifications, food doesn’t feel like it should, and on top of that, it doesn’t look like it should either!
When food doesn’t look like it should (i.e. tasty looking), our bodies don’t stimulate our appetites hardly at all. Think about yourself, would you rather eat a carrot whole, or a pureed carrot? Normal looking peas, or mashed peas?
If it doesn’t look good to you, it won’t look good to seniors either.
Additionally, if it’s possible to do so, consider adding texture variance to meals. If a meal has the same texture all throughout, it can become boring or tiresome to finish.
Imagine three different, equally delicious pasta dishes, one with a marinara, one with pesto, and one alfredo. Now imagine everything was made with spaghetti. At some point, you’ll get sick of spaghetti.
Adding other textural elements to the dishes can help make them easier to eat.
Try incorporating chewable, crushable, or slurp-able foods as you find appropriate.
Flavor is Key!
Human’s senses of taste and smell dull as we age, both naturally and because of oral or nasal infections. Because of this, it is very important to make the food that an elderly person eats as flavorful as possible.
Taste and smell are both important aspects of building an appetite and digesting food.
When we see or smell particularly tasty foods, and when they first hit our tongues, our brain sends signals all throughout the body saying “get ready for food!”
This results in the mouth generating more saliva, the stomach starts generating more acid, and the pancreas starts to generate digestive enzymes.
Psychologically, the sight, smell, and taste of foods can put us in the mindset of mealtime, and simply being in that mindset can make someone feel hungrier.
Top 11 Calorie Dense Foods
Without further ado, here is our list of the top 11 calorie dense foods for weight gain.
Keep in mind, these are just ideas to get you started. There are plenty of delicious calorie dense foods to help you on your weight gain journey.
- Whole milk can be used in many ways to increase calories consumed. It can be used in place of lower fat milks in recipes, used as an ingredient for things like milkshakes, it can even be enjoyed plain as a beverage.
- One cup of milk contains 150 calories, 30% the daily value of calcium, and, in the United States of America, is fortified with 25% the daily value of vitamin D.
Full-fat Dairy Products
- If you don’t enjoy milk, full-fat dairy products like certain cheeses and yogurts can be a good way to bump up calories while still keeping the benefits of calcium. Greek yogurts made with full fat milk are also high in protein, beneficial for muscle development.
- Eight ounces of these kinds of yogurts contain 220 calories and over 20 grams of protein.
- Avocados are packed with calories thanks to their abundance of healthy fats. 100 grams of avocado contains 10 grams of healthful, monounsaturated fats.
- 100 grams of avocado also contains almost 6 grams of dietary fiber, 20% the daily value of vitamin K, and is also rich in a plethora of other vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
Nuts and Seeds
- Nuts and seeds like almonds, cashews, walnuts, or pepitas (toss in peanuts too) all contain a great number of calories from healthy fats, similar to avocados. Also similar to avocados, nuts and seeds contain a great many vitamins and minerals.
- Just ten almonds contain nearly 80 calories and 7 grams of fat (nearly all of which are mono and polyunsaturated).
- Dried fruits are healthy options for a calorie dense snack. Since they’re just regular fruits with a lot of the water taken out, they’re packed full of vitamins, minerals, and fiber (and they’re pretty flavorful to boot!).
- One cup of prunes contains over 400 calories and 12 grams of dietary fiber, while the same amount of raisins contains almost 500 calories and 6 grams of fiber.
- Red meats, like beef, lamb, and pork, can be used for both calorie density and for muscle growth. As a whole, the food group contains many B vitamins, iron, and protein in spades, all of which, when combined with exercise, has been shown to result in muscle synthesis.
- For calorie density, choose fattier cuts like rib-eye (850 calories per steak), but be wary of saturated fat intake.
- Another solid protein option for the older adult is oily fish like sardines, tuna, trout, and the ever-popular salmon. Fish meat is naturally tender and will flake easily for easy eating.
- These oily fish are also great sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which have been associated with anti-inflammation. One 3 oz fillet of salmon contains 175 calories and 2 grams of omega-3s, even more if you leave the skin on.
- Whole eggs are one of the most nutritionally complete foods; aside from fiber and vitamin C, they generally contain at least a little bit of every micronutrient that humans need, in addition to healthy proteins and fats.
- One large egg contains about 80 calories, 6 grams of protein, and 11% the daily value of vitamin D.
Grains and Starches
- Grains and starches are foods like rice, potatoes, oatmeal, quinoa, and many more. All of these foods are high in carbohydrates and are usually calorie dense in their own rights.
- One medium baked potato contains 160 calories, which may not seem like a lot initially, but these plain grains and starches love added calories in the form of toppings!
Whole Grain Bread Products
- Breads are also a good food for adding extra calories to the diet. Whole grain bread is even better. Because whole grain flour still has the bran and the germ, it is denser, so whole grain breads contain more bread per slice, and thus more calories.
- Whole grain flours have more vitamins and minerals than white flours. If you want to satisfy a sweet tooth, you could also introduce whole grain flour to baked goods like cookies and cakes.
- Everybody loves their chocolate, and older adults are no exception. Between milk chocolate and dark chocolate, pound for pound dark chocolate wins out.
- Not only does dark chocolate contain more calories than milk chocolate (605 vs. 535 per 100g), but it also contains less sugar, more fiber, more minerals, and more antioxidants than its sweeter counterpart.
Increasing the Flavor of Bland, Calorie Dense Foods
Many of these foods don’t provide a whole lot of flavors on their own. This can compound with a decreased sense of taste and smell and result in an ultimately bland meal experience.
Pumping up the flavor of some of these foods can help make them more palatable and easier to eat.
Seasonings and Flavor Boosters
Adding different seasonings, spices, and flavor boosters can help to bump up the flavors of otherwise flavorless foods.
For example, avocados on their own have a very mild flavor, described as grassy, nutty, and fresh. Guacamole, on the other hand, can be full of flavor due to the addition of salt and pepper, citric acid from limes, and flavorings like cilantro, jalapeño, onion, and garlic.
There are some less obvious ways that seasonings can improve food flavors.
Salt, in low concentrations, can work to block bitter flavors and enhance sweet ones, perfect for sweet treats and pastries. In higher concentrations, it can improve umami, or savory, flavors like on meats.
Food Combinations, Familiar or Experimental
Combining two foods can be a good way to improve the experience of eating a meal. If someone doesn’t really like peanut butter on, say, toast, they might enjoy it a lot more if you gave it to them with apple slices.
Familiar food combos like these have the potential to increase intake and acceptance of food. Since they are familiar, they can elicit positive memories, reduce the intimidation of trying new foods, and they will be easy to prepare and eat.
It could also be a good idea to try experimenting with different food combinations. If you’re anything like me, you can get bored eating the same foods over and over.
Trying new, unique food combos can make eating a meal exciting again, and result in more food consumed.
Presentation of Foods
I’ve alluded to this throughout the rest of the article, but presentation of food is just as important as taste when it comes to the enjoyment of a meal.
There is a difference between a glop of mashed potatoes and a scoop of mashed potatoes. Furthermore, there’s a difference between a scoop and that same scoop with some dried parsley sprinkled on top.
There’s no need to perform Michelin star level plating, but putting the extra effort into making food look appetizing can help to increase acceptance and get someone to eat more of something.
Calorie Dense Meal Ideas
Here are some calorie dense meal ideas for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
High Calorie Breakfast Ideas
High calorie breakfast scramble: Sauté flavorful vegetables like onions or peppers, and add them to a scrambled egg mixture made with milk instead of water. When the eggs are finished cooking, top with cheese or slices of avocado. Serve with a slice of buttered toast, sausage, and orange slices
French toast: Sweet breakfasts are already typically high calorie, but if you really need a boost, try bumping up a French toast recipe. Try stuffing the French toast with cream cheese or mascarpone, making the recipe with cream instead of milk, or adding a fresh fruit appetizer.
Click here for more high calorie breakfast ideas!
High Calorie Lunch Ideas
Avocado tuna salad: Make your favorite tuna salad recipe (opt for wild caught tuna for better omega-3 profiles) and add diced avocado to the mix. The tuna salad mix can easily be made more calorie dense by tossing it onto a slice of whole grain bread and melting cheese over top to make a tuna melt.
Burrito bowl: For some older adults, a whole burrito, while calorie dense, can be unwieldy and difficult to eat. One option would be to dump the whole burrito into a bowl and serve it just like that! It can even be more calorie dense than a burrito because you have the liberty to load it up with your favorite calorie dense toppings and sauces without worrying about leakage or spilling.
High Calorie Dinner Ideas
Chowders: Cream based soups like chowders are calorie dense meal options for those looking for a liquid meal. With so many options to choose from like potato, corn, and seafood chowders, it would be hard to get bored. You can add extra calories by serving the soup with crackers on the side, topped with cheese, or even in a bread bowl.
Steak dinner: Choose a fatty cut of meat like Rib-eye to grill or pan-fry in a cast iron skillet. You can increase calories in this meal by marinading the steak with your favorite flavors and by basting it with butter as it cooks. You can also include side dishes like baked potatoes or roasted vegetables in oil. Check out more high calorie recipes here if you’d like more ideas.
Calorie Dense Snack Food Ideas
Here are some calorie dense snacks to munch on between meals.
High Fat Snack Ideas
High fat snacks are a good way to incorporate a lot of calories into the diet without accidentally filling the stomach too quickly to be effective. There are a lot of options out there, but here are a few starter ideas that can be helpful getting the ball rolling.
First, you could try a plate of nachos. This snack idea is very versatile, and easy to load up with calories. Starting with a base of tortilla chips and cheese, add on thinly sliced steak, drained and rinsed beans, black olives, or corn, then heat in the microwave and serve with guacamole on the side.
Next, you could try to use nut butters for quick, easy snacks. Something like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is a palatable, appetizing option for some people, or maybe dipping apple slices into almond butter is more your style.
Lastly, one more option would be to load up a full fat yogurt. You can add granola, fresh or dried fruits, and other flavorful add-ins like shredded coconut or mini chocolate chips to dress up the yogurt and make it just that much more appealing.
For more calorie dense snack ideas, click here!
Trail Mix as a High Calorie Snack
Trail mix was originally intended to provide quick energy to hikers in the form of carbohydrates from dried fruit and fat from nuts and seeds.
As we now know, both dried fruit and nuts and seeds are nutritive, calorie dense foods that can be easily incorporated into the diet to gain weight.
You can even make your own trail mix with your favorite ingredients. Want something tropical? Try adding dried pineapple and banana chips to almonds and cashews. Craving something a little more savory? Toss dried cranberries into the mix with smoked nuts and pumpkin seeds.
The sky is the limit.
Calorie Dense Smoothies and Shakes
One last snack option that can be easily used for weight gain are calorie dense smoothies and shakes.
There are a nearly unlimited number of recipes available to choose from, but as long as you use full fat dairy, and add in high calorie ingredients, any smoothie or shake would be a great option.
You can get as creative as you’d want, throwing in herbs like in this recipe:
Start with a base of whole milk or full fat kefir, yogurt, or ice cream. Toss in frozen strawberries, chia seeds, and splash with orange juice. Then add fresh basil leaves to taste. From here you can add flax seed oil, which is high in healthy omega-3s, and blend until smooth.
If you’re looking for something more rich in protein, check out our recipes for high protein shakes.
Adding Extra Calories
If you’re still running into trouble with acceptability of calorie dense foods, it might be smart to try and incorporate some of these calorie dense foods into people’s favorite meals.
Calorie Boosting Substitutions
There are many ingredients that can be easily swapped out for higher calorie options.
In cereals, or as additions to coffees or teas, skim milks can be swapped for higher fat varieties like whole milk or half & half. Reduced fat varieties of foods like cheese, mayonnaise, or snack foods should be swapped for their full fat options.
Certain recipes can have ingredients swapped as well; for example, chicken breasts can be easily substituted for dark meat chicken like thighs, which contain more fat and more calories (and possibly improved taste and texture, according to preference).
Sides are another part of the meal that could be swapped for higher calorie options. Two slices of bacon in addition to a normal breakfast adds about 90 calories, whereas one 3 oz link of sausage can add upwards of 300 calories.
Adding Calorie Dense Ingredients to Meals
Outside of swapping ingredients, some meals can have ingredients added in to boost calorie density.
Meals that take toppings to complete like nachos or baked potatoes can be loaded with high fat, high calorie options like sour cream, guacamole, olives, cheese, or meat products.
One-pot meals like soups, stews, or sheet-pan meals can also easily accommodate extra ingredients. Consider adding ground beef or diced chicken thighs to casseroles or starches like lentils, beans, or potatoes to soups.
Consider Other Courses
One last option for bumping up calories could be to offer other courses.
Appetizers are called appetizers for a reason, they can help to stimulate the appetite, making you feel hungrier for the main course of the meal. With a bigger appetite, you are more likely to eat more of the meal.
Things like bread and butter, chips and salsa, or potato skins are good calorie dense appetizers to start a meal.
Desserts are another option for introducing more calories. Variance in flavor, texture, and the positive effects of sugar on appetite stimulation can all lead to someone eating a dessert course even if they feel too full to continue the main course.
Calorie Dense Foods Summary
Unintentional or severe weight loss in the elderly is a major issue, and it needs to be addressed as soon as possible. One thing that we can impact the most on our own is the foods that we eat.
Using calorie dense foods in snacks and meals throughout the day can help to slow, prevent, or reverse dangerous weight loss, and keep older adults feeling happy, healthy, and with a high quality of life.
For a helpful plan to help the elderly gain weight and keep weight on, check out our free weight gaining meal plan.
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