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How to Gain Weight: Healthier Mass Gainer Alternatives


Article edited for scientific accuracy by Illuminate Labs Blog Editor Taylor Graber MD 

Illuminate Labs How to Gain Weight article header image

Many consumers take mass gainers or weight gain powders to help them achieve caloric surplus and gain muscle while working out, but these are often unhealthy options.

In this article we’ll review the problems with mass gainers from a health perspective, and offer some healthier alternatives for how to gain weight.

Problems With Mass Gainers

Optimum Nutrition Serious Mass ingredients list

Most mass gainer products have to have a strange formulation by design, because it’s hard to get thousands of calories in a couple scoops of powder.

If we analyze the formulation (listed above) of Serious Mass from Optimum Nutrition, one of the most popular mass gainers on the market, we can see why it’s not a healthy option.

Their Chocolate Peanut Butter product contains 1,250 calories and 253 g carbs, and most of the carbs come from maltodextrin, which is a highly processed white powder derived from vegetables. 

This ingredient is proven to be safe in small amounts, and we even use it in very small quantities as a stabilizer in some of our supplement formulations, but it may be harmful in large food portions, especially at the dosage in mass gainers.

Maltodextrin has been shown in medical research to be harmful to microbiome (gut) function in high amounts. Over 200 grams, which is about the RDA for all carbs in a day, would certainly qualify as a high dose of maltodextrin which could harm the gut and cause GI distress and inflammation.

Because maltodextrin is so highly processed, it’s almost totally devoid of nutrients like vitamins and minerals. Getting the bulk of your calories daily from maltodextrin will provide you significantly fewer nutrients than eating a whole food carb like whole wheat or potatoes.

And it’s not just Optimum Nutrition that uses this ingredient; two of the other top mass gainers on Amazon at the time of this article (Dymatize Super Mass and BSN True Mass) also use maltodextrin as the base carbohydrate that provides the majority of the calories.

The other problem with these formulations which include highly processed carbs for a bulk of their calories is that they can negatively impact blood sugar. 

Maltodextrin was tested to have as high of a glycemic index as pure glucose, which means it can rapidly spike blood glucose levels in a harmful way. This is less of a concern if taken after a hard workout, but with many consumers worldwide already suffering from diabetes or pre-diabetes, we don’t believe high doses of this ingredient should be used by most consumers.

Many Mass Gainers, like the Optimum Nutrition one shown above, also contain artificial flavors and food dyes. As we discussed at length in our review of energy supplement G Fuel, these additive compounds have been shown in medical studies to be harmful to human health.

We have no issue with the protein types or fat sources in most mass gainers, but the carb source and additives tend to be a problem. Most of these products are also quite low in nutrients relative to protein powder alone.

Overall, we don’t recommend mass gainers which contain maltodextrin and we haven’t come across one mass gainer product we would recommend due to its healthy formulation.

Healthier Alternatives

Since mass gainers are typically used as a dietary supplement which adds around 1,000 quick and palatable calories, we believe they can be replaced with alternatives which are cheaper, healthier and more nutrient dense.

Coconut Flakes

image of coconuts

Coconut flakes can be found in most grocery stores and are very calorie dense since they’re primarily made of saturated fats. We disagree with the conventional wisdom that saturated fats contribute to heart disease, and believe this is an issue of correlation vs. causation, however none of this is medical advice and is just the opinion of the writers.

Not all saturated fats are the same, and saturated fat consumption from conventionally raised meats cooked in cheap, hydrogenated vegetable oil likely does contribute to heart disease, and this is how most consumers intake saturated fats. Population studies just look at overall saturated fat intake and not fat sources.

Coconut flakes contain around 100 calories per serving, and a small bag usually contains around 20 servings. This is an easy way to add 600-700 calories daily with minimal effort. They can be added to a smoothie or consumed alone.

Overall coconut is very high in nutritional value, and also contains a unique compound called lauric acid which is antibacterial and antifungal and not found in many other consumable products.

Nuts

image of mixed nuts

Most nuts are super high in calories and one of the healthiest snack foods around. Consumption of nuts has been associated with reduced risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease and overall mortality in medical research. It’s one of the few food categories that nearly all researchers and doctors agree is healthy for everyone except those with nut allergies.

Just one cup of peanuts contains around 800 calories, and far more nutrients than the equivalent dose of a mass gainer. Peanuts are high in fiber, protein, magnesium, iron, copper and many more vitamins and minerals. Peanuts are one of the cheapest health foods too, and an 800 calorie serving should cost less than $1 if bought in bulk.

We recommend alternating nut varieties because they all have different nutrient compositions. If a consumer can afford it, eating macadamias one day, peanuts the next and almonds the third day as a way to gain weight is likely healthier than eating just peanuts all three days. Either option is far healthier than taking a mass gainer in our opinion.

Avocados 

image of avocado

Avocados are another calorie dense health food, with large avocados containing 300 calories or more. Eating two avocados daily adds around 700 calories depending on size. This is an easy snack that goes great with hot sauce or seasoning, and requires no preparation.

These fruits are very high in fiber, contain high amounts of minerals, and also contain many trace nutrients like choline, pantothenic acid, and phytosterols which are low in the Standard American Diet.

This mass gainer alternative is significantly more expensive than the other two listed, so consumers on a budget may prefer sticking to peanuts and/or coconut.

However, we believe avocados to be the most nutrient dense option on this list, and even one avocado daily can add a lot of calories and nutrition.

Conclusion

We don’t recommend any commercially available mass gainer products because the formulations we’ve reviewed contain processed carbs which may be harmful in high doses. Mass gainers also tend to contain artificial fillers and dyes, and nearly zero nutrition outside of the protein.

We recommend coconut, nuts and avocados as healthy alternatives for people looking to gain weight. It’s relatively easy to get an extra 1,000 calories a day from these foods, at a lower or equivalent cost than a mass gainer, and you’re likely to feel much better taking them because they’re better for health and provide high levels of nutrients. 




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