Nobody wants to hear someone complain about having a hard time gaining weight. However, the fact remains: if your goal is to gain muscle and/or get stronger, you probably need to consume more calories than you’ve been eating. This can be a surprisingly difficult feat to master if your appetite is just not there.
It’s worth noting that a lack of appetite can sometimes be a symptom of health issues like depression, irritable bowel syndrome, or fatty liver disease. In some cases, not wanting to eat is the side effect of some medications, so be sure to speak with your doctor if you have concerns. If loss of appetite persists, it can lead to weight loss and malnutrition.
Fortunately, for the average person struggling to meet their calorie requirements — to gain muscle or get their appetite back on track after a bout of illness or stress — these tips can help. They include:
- Consume More MCT Oil
- Use Water to Your Advantage
- Eat More Often
- Get a Bigger Plate
- Try Cannabis
- Drink Your Calories
- Keep up With Exercise
- Limit Your Fiber Intake
- Make Meals a Social Occasion
- Build up Some Meal Anticipation
Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it shouldn’t take the place of advice and/or supervision from a medical professional. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. Speak with your health care provider if you have any concerns or before beginning any new workout regime
Spiking coffee with MCT oil has gained popularity with keto and paleo dieters. The fat-rich substance fires up the metabolism and is thought to keep hunger at bay. Still, research suggests MCT oil actually increases appetite by stimulating the release of the hunger-promoting hormone ghrelin (1). Caffeine is also a well-known appetite stimulant, so starting the day with this energizing drink can be a great way to dial up your intake of nutrient-dense calories while also stoking your appetite for the rest of the day.
If you’re worried about the fat-heavy drink being too greasy or leaving you feeling weighed down, don’t be. The medium-chain triglycerides in MCT Oil are potentially good for digestive health and metabolism. The short-chain fats digest more quickly than other fats, which help fuel energy and minimize the “heavy” feeling some people experience after fat-rich meals (2). You don’t have to limit your MCT oil intake to coffee, either. Adding a spoonful or two to shakes, salad dressings, or cereal is also an easy way to bulk up dishes with a few extra calories.
Drinking a glass of water just before eating is a science-backed weight-loss strategy. Water fills up the stomach, helping you feel fuller faster. Plus, the liquid can dilute stomach acid, which also helps slow digestion and prolong satiety. That’s good news for people looking to curb their calorie intake.
However, if you’re trying to bulk up, you should do the opposite and hold off on hydrating until after eating. That said, if you’re increasing your calories slowly — and you probably should be — many find it useful to drink a lot of water on a full stomach because it helps to stretch the stomach and prepare it for more volume over time. This is also an easier change to your diet than constantly mixing shakes and preparing food, so it’s a relatively easy and early step into bulking.
In one study published in the journal Obesity, researchers compared the effects of eating three meals a day versus six on fat-burning rates and perceived hunger. They found that while subjects showed no metabolic differences based on meal frequency, study participants reported much higher feelings of hunger and desire to eat when consuming six meals a day (3). It seems that each time you eat, it prompts the release of hunger-stimulating hormones. The more frequently you eat, the more hunger hormones the body pumps out, and the more hungry you’ll feel.
To some, a large portion of food can seem daunting, but you can trick your brain into thinking you’re eating less (and thereby whetting your appetite) by serving your meals on a bigger plate. Research shows that even small increases in plate size can lead people to subconsciously consume larger portions (4). So try serving up meals on your biggest dinner plate and see if it makes it easier to hit your calorie count for the day.
It’s hard to ignore the research — and the average anecdotal report — that pot stimulates the appetite. (5) Studies have suggested that it can increase ghrelin and leptin, hormones associated with appetite, it may cause your olfactory bulb to find food tastier and better smelling, and it could prompt your hypothalamus to signal that you’re hungry even when your stomach is full. (6)
The appetite boosting properties are a big reason why cannabis is prescribed to patients undergoing chemotherapy, though it’s not available to everyone. (7) If it is legal where you live and you like it, though, talk to your doctor: You may be able to get a medical marijuana card to buy it at local dispensaries.
Some people may consider cannabis extract called CBD, which is easier to buy over the counter in the United States, a feasible appetite-increaser. Note that right now, research doesn’t suggest that it increases appetite as reliably as THC (the active mind-altering component of cannabis). But CBD may reduce stress and anxiety and reduce inflammation, which may help combat stress-related loss of appetite or moderate other symptoms related to loss of appetite.
If you pay attention to the diets of strongmen like Hafthor Bjornsson — the kinds of guys who need at least 8,000 calories per day — you’ll often see fruit juice served with their meals. People interested in healthy eating are usually told early on never to drink their calories to avoid the extra carbs. While that’s smart for weight loss, juice can be a great way to consume extra grams of carbs at a meal without any fiber to fill you up.
Blending up protein shakes with lots of nutrient-dense ingredients like coconut milk, MCT oil, nut butters, and/or avocado can be another smart way to down a lot of muscle-building calories at once. Liquid calories don’t trip up hunger signals in the stomach the same way that solid foods do, so you can drink more calories without filling up.
Research conflicts as to whether or not there’s a type of exercise most effective for increasing appetite. Some studies have shown those who don’t exercise have poorly regulated hormones related to hunger (like ghrelin). Still, when they start an exercise program, they start eating closer to the number of calories the body requires. (8)(9)
For people who overeat, exercise can come with issues that can exacerbate the problem, like a belief that you’ve “earned” more calories. But for those who have trouble eating enough, exercise may help regulate ghrelin and keep your appetite at an appropriate level. Whether you like bodyweight training, performing deadlifts, or getting some curls in — we suggest that you do something.
Fiber digests slowly and helps you feel more full, making it not so great for people struggling with low appetite. To avoid the filling effects of fiber, you may want to pick white rice over brown rice, sourdough bread over whole grains, and stick to lower-fiber fruits and veggies like bananas, skinless potatoes, melons, and stone fruits.
The recommended daily intake for adults is about 25 grams of fiber for females and 38 grams for males. If you’re keeping fiber relatively low but still eating a lot of calories from whole foods, there’s a decent chance you’ll hit that mark. If not (and to keep up digestive regularity, especially as you increase your calories), consider a fiber supplement like psyllium husk at the end of the day.
Ever notice that you eat more when you’re hanging around with friends or when you’re watching the Sunday football game? Research shows that the distraction of social interaction and/or the television shifts focus away from food and encourages people to consume more subconsciously. In fact, one study found that subjects ate 18 percent more when eating with friends and 14 percent more when dining in front of the TV. (10)
If you’re desperate to keep calories high, then you can eat in front of a mirror. Another study found that people who ate in front of a mirror rated food as tasting better, and they consumed more of it compared to when they dined without the mirror. (11)
If you’re really struggling to muster up an appetite, try appealing to your other senses to build anticipation for your next meal. You can scroll through mouthwatering pictures of pizza, cake, or other favorites on Instagram or Pinterest. Just looking at food images has been shown to trigger the release of the hunger hormone ghrelin that revs up an appetite. (12)
Scent can also be a powerful appetite stimulant. We’ve all felt our stomach rumble after catching a whiff of freshly baked cookies or spaghetti sauce simmering on the stove. And you can get a similar effect by lighting a candle that gives off a delicious scent like apple spice or vanilla or taking a whiff of an enticing essential oil.
One key: Be sure to sniff a scent that corresponds to what you’ll be eating. Research suggests that smell increases appetite for sensory-specific flavors (think sweet or savory or rich), so you’ll get the biggest benefits by cueing up a smell that is similar to the meal you have on deck to eat. (13)
When you are trying to train yourself to eat more, you can adopt the same mental strategies to train yourself to lift more: you need to put in the effort consistently. When it comes to food, going from undereating to overeating may feel uncomfortable at first, but setting yourself a schedule, sticking to your macros, and putting a plan in place will help eating more get easier over time. If you put in the effort every day and pair your efforts with a solid training split, your stomach will expand, and your body will start to expect the calories.
- Nishi Y, et al. Ghrelin acylation by ingestion of medium-chain fatty acids. Methods Enzymol. 2012;514:303-15.
- Takeuchi H, et al. The application of medium-chain fatty acids: edible oil with a suppressing effect on body fat accumulation. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr. 2008;17 Suppl 1:320-3.
- Ohkawa K, et al. Effects of Increased Meal Frequency on Fat Oxidation and Perceived Hunger. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2013 Feb;21(2)336-343.
- Pratt I, et al. The mathematical relationship between dishware size and portion size. Appetite. 2012, Feb. 58(1):299-302. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22063905/
- Kirkham TC, et al. Cannabinoids and appetite: food craving and food pleasure. Int Rev Psychiatry. 2009 Apr;21(2):163-71.
- Riggs PK, et al. A pilot study of the effects of cannabis on appetite hormones in HIV-infected adult men. Brain Res. 2012 Jan 11;1431:46-52.
- Abrams DI. Integrating cannabis into clinical cancer care. Curr Oncol. 2016 Mar;23(2):S8-S14.
- Corroon J, et al. A Cross-Sectional Study of Cannabidiol Users. Cannabis Cannabinoid Res. 2018 Jul 1;3(1):152-161.
- Martins C, et al. Effect of chronic exercise on appetite control in overweight and obese individuals. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2013 May;45(5):805-12.
- Hetherington M, et al. Situational effects on meal intake: A comparison of eating alone and eating with others. Physiol Behav. 2006 Jul 30;88(4-5):498-505.
- Ryuzaburo N, et al. The “social” facilitation of eating without the presence of others. Physiology & Behavior, 2017; 179: 23
- Schüssler, P, et el. Ghrelin Levels Increase After Pictures Showing Food. Obesity, 2012; 20: 1212-1217.
- Prospero C, et al. Ambient Odor Exposure Affects Food Intake and Sensory Specific Appetite in Obese Women. Front Psychol. 2019; 10: 7.
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