How to Gain Weight Back After COVID-19
“How to Gain Weight Back After COVID-19” was edited/updated by Aly Bouzek, MS, RDN.
If you or someone you loved has suffered through COVID -19, I am so sorry. COVID-19 comes with so many side effects and complications including unintended weight loss. You may still be picking up the pieces and trying to get back to your pre-COVID health.
In this article we’ll discuss how to gain weight back after COVID-19. But first let’s look at why those with COVID-19 are losing weight.
Please note that we use the CDC for all references related to COVID-19. We use our expertise and experience as a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for our tips on gaining weight.
Symptoms of COVID-19
It seems like everyone experiences COVID-19 a little differently. Some people have no symptoms while some have mild symptoms. Then there are some who experience severe symptoms. Symptoms that can even land them in the hospital.
Per the CDC, symptoms of COVID may include (1):
- Difficulty breathing
- Loss of taste or smell
- Sore throat
Severe symptoms requiring hospitalization include trouble breathing, chest pain, confusion, turning blue from not getting enough oxygen, or being unable to stay awake. (1)
Because COVID-19 hasn’t been around for a very long time, there isn’t a ton of strong research. And there is a lot we don’t know. But new research is emerging. Let’s look at what we do know.
Loss of Taste or Smell with COVID-19
Losing the ability to taste or smell is often a tell-tale sign that someone is COVID-19 positive.
But how many people are actually impacted by this symptom of COVID-19?
Some people experience loss of taste or smell while others experience loss of BOTH taste and smell.
A research review article looked at 5 different studies with 10,818 people total. Of these patients, 81.6% lost the ability to taste. And 74.8% lost the ability to smell. (2)
While new research continues to emerge, we know that this symptom is a hallmark of COVID-19.
Weight Loss in COVID-19
Unintended weight loss is being seen in COVID-19 patients being treated both at home and in the hospital. However, those with a more severe version of the virus are likely to lose the most weight. (3)
One research article looking at hospitalized COVID-19 patients found that 37% of participants lost ≥5% of their body weight. (4) This is a significant amount of weight loss. At this level, people are likely losing muscle.
Losing muscle can contribute to long-term health issues and disability.
Malnutrition in COVID-19
Malnutrition is the loss of muscle and body fat. Research is showing that anywhere from 28% to 48% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients are malnourished. (4)
Some people are malnourished before getting COVID-19 and the virus (along with complications) can make the malnutrition more severe. Others become malnourished as a result of getting COVID-19.
Researchers have said that weight loss and malnutrition risk (losing muscle!) are likely an underestimated risk of COVID-19. (3)
How Does COVID-19 Cause Weight Loss
Whew, this was a lot of information. But how do these symptoms cause you to lose weight? There are many factors, but let’s dive into two of them. Loss of taste/smell and hospitalization.
Losing Weight Due to Loss of Taste or Smell from COVID-19
A big contributor to losing weight from COVID-19 is the common symptom of loss of taste or smell.
It may seem so minor compared to other symptoms, but it can have a serious impact on health.
When you have a mild to severe case of COVID-19, you just don’t feel well.
That’s a simple fact. When we feel cruddy, we often lose our appetite. We don’t feel like eating because we feel so sick.
Are Taste and Smell Connected?
As humans, we have 5 basic senses: taste, smell, sight, hearing, and touch. Taste and smell are two separate senses, but they are connected and help us experience “flavor” when we eat.
If our smell or taste senses are not working, then the flavor from our foods tastes different.
Picture when you have a stuffy nose – your food doesn’t taste as good, right? Or if you burn your tongue and try to eat something later in the day – your food doesn’t taste very good.
Now, imagine if BOTH your taste and smell aren’t working correctly. Your food is going to taste like nothing.
Now trying to eat when food tastes like nothing? That’s tough. At least when you feel cruddy, the salty taste of hot chicken noodle soup or sweet taste of 7-up can make you feel something. Maybe comfort. Maybe a small sliver of joy.
Food is an important part of our mental wellbeing in addition to our physical well being.
Not having taste or smell when combined with poor appetite from feeling sick = eating less. Or not eating at all. Not eating enough calories leads to unintended weight loss.
And we should mention that since your body is hard at work fighting COVID-19, you are actually burning more calories to start with.
Burning more calories from illness + not eating = more rapid weight loss.
Losing Weight Due to Hospitalization for COVID-19
Anyone with COVID-19 is at a higher risk of unintended weight loss. But those who end up being hospitalized are at an even higher risk. Usually those who are hospitalized have more severe cases of COVID-19.
And their body is working extra hard to promote healing. This means the body is burning even more calories.
And if they have an infection? Burning more calories.
And if they end up being critically ill and on a ventilator? Burning more calories.
Being hospitalized increases risk of unintended weight loss. The hospitalized individual is battling illness, burning more calories than usual, and often not feeling up to (or being able to) eat.
Now there are good dietitians and hospital staff trying to get nutrients into hospitalized patients, but sometimes weight loss just happens, especially with COVID-19.
How to Gain Weight Back After COVID-19
OK, that’s enough about WHY individuals are losing weight with COVID-19. There are many more factors and considerations, but this is a brief overview. Now let’s dig into how to gain weight back after COVID-19.
Eat High Calorie Foods
Depending on how long it’s been since you had COVID-19, you may be feeling great or you still may be feeling cruddy. But maybe you still haven’t gotten your taste back. And it’s hard to eat a lot of food.
To gain weight back after COVID-19 we recommend eating foods higher in calories. But it’s not just about volume. It’s not just eating more food. You need to eat the right types of food.
Different foods contain different amounts of calories. While eating a lot of food can leave you full, it doesn’t mean those foods contain a lot of calories. For example, you can fill up on a huge salad, but it actually contains a low number of calories.
Calories are key for weight gain. If you eat more calories than your body needs to function throughout the day, you will gain weight.
Which Foods Are High in Calories?
Typically, foods with a higher fat content contain the most calories. You can learn more about high calorie foods through our many articles about High Calories.
Foods high in calories that can help you gain weight include:
- Whole fat dairy
- Peanut butter
- Dried fruit
Check out our Weight Gain Food List for more high calorie food ideas!
Make a Plan to Gain Weight Back
Once you figure out which high calorie foods you like, then make a plan. Make a shopping list with the foods you need to stock in your home. Create a meal plan for what you will eat throughout the day. And focus on eating multiple times throughout the day.
If you’re just starting out on your weight gain journey, then try smaller meals more frequently throughout the day. For example, try 5-6 smaller meals spread out every 2-3 hours.
You can check out our High Calorie Foods SERIES for some tools to help you get more calories. You may also find our e-book Weight Gaining SECRETS helpful as you work to gain back weight after COVID-19.
And finally, here are some additional articles and resources that may be beneficial as you plan for weight gain:
How Long Does It Take to Gain Weight Back After COVID-19?
Eat high calorie foods.
I know you get it, but you may be wondering how long it takes to gain weight back after COVID-19. Well, that depends.
Gain Weight Back Fast
The more calories you eat, the faster you’ll gain weight. And you may want to get back to your old self as quickly as possible. We can totally understand that.
However, as a word of caution, don’t try to gain weight back too fast. Aim for gaining 1-2 pounds per week and gradually add back the weight. Also be sure to do strength training exercises to improve muscle strength.
We want to ensure you are gaining healthy weight. Meaning you gain back muscle and strength. And not just body fat or water weight.
How Many Calories to Gain a Pound?
It takes 3500 calories to gain one pound of weight.
This is 3500 calories above what your body needs to function.
This may seem like a lot, but if you break it down it seems more manageable.
Eating 500 extra calories per day should equate to gaining 1 pound in a week. Eating 1000 extra calories per day should equate to gaining 2 pounds per week.
Again, aim to split up your extra calories throughout the day.
Using the above example of eating smaller meals 5-6 times a day, try adding 100 extra calories to each meal and snack. This can help you meet the goal of 500 extra calories per day for a 1 pound per week weight gain.
You can see by these examples why it can be unrealistic to gain 5 or more pounds per week. That’s a ton of extra calories. And as mentioned above, it just isn’t good for your health.
Your body has been through enough with COVID-19. It will take time to regain any weight that was lost during this time. Try to be patient and you will get there.
How Long Until Food Tastes Good Again After COVID-19?
If you lost your sense of taste or smell from COVID-19, you may be wondering when food will taste good again. Because everyone is different, only time will tell.
What Research Says
Again, we don’t have a ton of research yet. But with up to 80% of patients with COVID-19 experiencing loss of taste or smell, I suspect we’ll see more research soon.
A small study with 202 COVID patients investigated those who lost their sense of smell or taste. After 4 weeks of getting COVID-19, a total of 48.7% reported getting their taste or smell back. 40.7% had some improvement in taste or smell. And 10.6% saw no improvement. (5)
We need more research to give more definitive answers. But hopefully this small study can give you an estimate of when you could get your taste or smell back.
How to Make Food Taste Better
As you gain your sense of taste back you may want some ideas to make food more flavorful so you can get back your appetite! Here are some seasonings you can try.
Seasonings to add flavor to your food:
- Garlic (fresh, roasted, or powdered)
- Herbs (fresh or dried)
- Lemon juice
- Hot sauce
- Flavor enhancers
- Premade seasonings
When your appetite is poor, try eating smaller and more frequent meals. It can be hard to eat a full meal, so settle for a good snack every few hours throughout the day.
Gain Weight Back Conclusion
We covered a lot of information from why COVID-19 contributes to unintended weight loss to how to gain back weight after COVID-19.
Remember that it’s a journey to gain back your weight and health after this virus. Make a plan, be patient, eat lots of calories, and slowly gain back that weight.
Wishing you the very best of luck!
How to Gain Weight Back Infographic
(Feel free to use this infographic; please link back to this post and give credit to The Geriatric Dietitian).
- Symptoms. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/symptoms-testing/symptoms.html. Updated August 11, 2022. Accessed September 16, 2022.
- Passarelli, P. C., Lopez, M. A., Bonaviri, G. M., Garcia-Godoy, F., & D’Addona, A. (2020). Taste and smell as chemosensory dysfunctions in COVID-19 infection. Am J Dent, 33(3), 135-137. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32470238/.
- Di Filippo, L, et al. (2020). COVID-19 is associated with clinically significant weight loss and risk of malnutrition, independent of hospitalisation: A post-hoc analysis of a prospective cohort study. Clin Nutr., 40(4), 2420-2426. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7598735/.
- Anker, M. S., Landmesser, U., von Haehling, S., Butler, J., Coats, A. J., & Anker, S. D. (2020). Weight loss, malnutrition, and cachexia in COVID‐19: facts and numbers. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7890265/.
- Boscolo-Rizzo, P, et al. (2020). Evolution of altered sense of smell or taste in patients with mildly symptomatic COVID-19. JAMA Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg, 146(8), 729-732. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7333173/.