For some women, gaining weight is a challenge. Typically, these women are young, athletic and ultra health-conscious, or they are “genetic string-beans” who are programmed to be lean regardless of the number of calories consumed. They cut the fat from their diet and exercise like they are supposed to, but the problem is that they can’t stop losing weight. Many women hear all the media messages associating fat consumption with increased risk of clogged arteries, heart disease and cancer, and they become terrified of consuming fat. Like other health-conscious women, they assume that if cutting down on fat is good to do, cutting out fat is even better. However, for active women with fast metabolisms, it’s nearly impossible to get adequate calories on a strictly low-fat diet.
Another adversary in the struggle to gain weight is endurance exercise which uses calories and can also decrease your appetite. Exercise diverts blood flow away from the digestive tract and into the muscles. If your digestive juices aren’t flowing, you won’t feel hunger pangs. Also, exercise triggers the release of epinephrine (adrenaline). Like other stimulants, epinephrine is a potent appetite suppressant.
In theory, gaining weight should be a purely mathematical problem. Add an extra 500 calories per day to your diet and by the end of the week you’ll have gained a pound. Well, sometimes it’s not quite that easy. Some women have such a fast metabolism that the extra calories are just “burned” away.
The usual motivation to gain weight is vanity. Some women may want their thighs to be bigger than their knees. However, there are also health risks attached to being too thin. Body fat is reserve fuel which gives your body something to fall back on during illness. Any sickness that keeps you from eating for several days can effectively waste four to five pounds of lean tissue. At best, cannibalizing your own muscles for fuel is seriously fatiguing. On the other hand, it can also be life-threatening.
What constitutes too lean? The average woman who’s not overweight carries between 20 and 25 percent of her body weight as fat. For athletic women, 18 percent and even lower is not uncommon. About 11 to 13 percent of a woman’s body fat is considered essential, meaning that it’s required for survival. As body fat declines, so do estrogen levels. Drop below your body’s set-point for fat and weight and menstruation ceases. In effect, you’re in a state of menopause and at risk of losing calcium from your bones at an accelerated pace. Although some female athletes have fat levels in the 11 to 13 percent range, this is not an ideal level. Many of these women have stopped menstruating.
Individual set-points can vary tremendously, but the following rule of thumb is useful for a quick weight assessment: Allow 100 pounds of weight for your first 5 feet of height, and add 5 pounds for each additional inch. At 5-foot-4, that would equal 120 pounds. You should subtract 10 percent for a small frame. Add 10 to 15 percent for a large frame or muscular build. Regardless of the numbers, if your periods stop when your weight drops, you’re too thin!
Adding Calories to Your Diet
* Drink lots of liquids, such as fruit juice and low-fat or whole milk. Liquids are digested quickly so they won’t fill you up and spoil your appetite for other foods.
* Add extra meals to your schedule. Eat five or six times a day, rather than three or four. It’s easier to eat more frequently than it is to have second helpings which may leave you feeling sluggish and bloated.
* Try not to skip meals. If you’re not hungry because you’ve just finished a strenuous workout, drink a quart or two of juice in lieu of solid foods. If the idea of eating anything leaves you feeling queasy, drink a glass of water first and then move on to juice or food.
* If possible, eat one-and-a-half to two hours before a workout . If you’re hungry right before your workout, drink some juice. If you exercise first thing in the morning, just remember to eat afterwards whether you’re hungry or not.
* Include some healthy, calorie-dense foods in your diet. Good choices include nuts, seeds, nut butters, dried fruit, avocados, olives, granola and grape juice. Use olive, peanut or canola oil on salads and in cooking and baking. None of these foods have any saturated fat or cholesterol. If cholesterol isn’t a problem and it rarely is for slim, healthy athletes–include cheese and butter in moderation.
Don’t however, add junk to your diet such as chips, dips, french fries, candy bars and sodas. Two scoops of frozen yogurt have the same number of calories as one scoop of rich ice cream, but frozen yogurt has more calcium and protein. Muffins are also a good choice because they’re higher in fat and denser calorically than bread.
* Make an effort to eat right before you go to bed. You won’t burn the calories as quickly while you sleep.
* Try stimulating your appetite with B-complex vitamins (50-75 mg.).
Finally, a tip for genetic string-beans: Add some weight-lifting to your exercise regime. You may be able to add a few pounds of muscle, in lieu of fat.