With an obesity epidemic sweeping the nation, health experts and government officials are focusing their efforts on helping people to lose weight. But for some people, being underweight is just as dangerous. No matter how much they eat or how little they exercise, certain individuals find it almost impossible to gain the pounds that would help them achieve a healthy body weight. We spoke to one woman who is dangerously underweight and asked various experts how she, and others like her, can safely gain weight.
How to safely gain weight
Fiona Campbell reads the endless articles on weight loss and watches the reams of news pieces on the growing obesity epidemic with great interest. Not because she is overweight – quite the opposite in fact. Fiona is one of the many people out there who struggles to gain weight, rather than lose it. And, even though the consequences are different, the health implications are just as serious for people in her situation as they are for obese people.
Fiona, who is 25 and lives in Edinburgh, recognises the fact that obesity is more widespread and appreciates the need to educate people who are dangerously overweight, but also feels that more should be done to help people who find it hard to gain the pounds that would bring their weight to within the healthy range.
Quiz: is your weight a health risk
“My parents are slim and I have always, always been really thin. Not because I diet, or starve myself, or miss out meals – I just can’t put on weight,” she says. And anyone envious of Fiona’s situation should consider some of the social problems she has faced. She says: “I was bullied quite badly at school because I was, and still am, so small and thin. And it didn’t stop after primary school – in my later years I was so thin that other teenagers used to say that I looked like a ten-year-old. People also suggested that I was being neglected and that my parents were not looking after me properly, which just is not true.
“I have been to see lots of doctors about my problem, but none of them have been able to help me. Most of them thought that I had an eating disorder, but I am painfully aware that I am thin and have never thought I was fat. I have tried everything I can to put on weight, but I’m 25 now, just over five foot and I weigh about six stone. I eat a lot for my size, and find it annoying when people tell me to eat more – I couldn’t fit any more in without bursting!
How to eat a balanced diet
“Some of my friends are the exact opposite to me – they do everything they can to lose weight and eat very little. I have also tried exercising to build up muscle, but this does very little and only seems to make me skinnier. I really want to be a bit bigger; I would feel so much better about myself. At the moment, I hate my body and really feel down about myself.”
A weighty issue
And it is not just women who are affected by this problem. Tom Griffin is 23 and lives in London. He says: “I have always been skinny, but more importantly I think is the fact that I have always felt skinny. I feel like I am not as much of a presence in a room, even though I’m 6’2”. I weigh 10 stone eight pounds, and would like to be around 12 stone.
Measure your body mass index
“I do a lot of exercise but I never put on weight. I try doing lots of sit-ups and press-ups and weights to bulk up, but it has never had an effect. I am in good shape and it is not a case of being unfit, I would just like to weigh more. I’m hoping that it is something that will change when I get older – my dad is big now but until he was 30 he was very skinny, like me.”
Like Fiona, Tom does know the important of sticking to a healthy diet. “I eat loads,” he says, “and I really don’t know why I am so skinny still. My ribs and shoulders in particular stick out. I really don’t know what it feels like to have an ounce of fat on my body.
Why are some people underweight?
For many people who are underweight, the reason is simply that they are naturally slender or have a fast metabolism that makes it hard for them to put on weight. They may also have inherited their body shape from family members or have high energy levels that do not allow them to sit still for long. Others may be underweight because they do not eat enough or exercise too much.
If you are consciously missing out meals or starving your body of the fuel it needs to keep you well or maintain a healthy weight, you may have an eating disorder and should therefore talk to your doctor immediately. If you have recently lost weight for unexplained reasons, you could have an underlying health problem and, again, you should see your doctor as soon as possible.
Do you have an eating disorder?
The important thing to remember is that being underweight is perfectly normal and certainly does not make you a ‘freak’. Plus, with the right exercise and diet programme, there is usually a way you can bulk yourself up a bit.
What are the health implications?
For some people, being underweight will lead to little or no health problems. For some, however, the implications of being dangerously underweight can be very serious. Your bones, for example, may not be as strong as they ought to be and a woman may find that her periods stop or become irregular, something which in turn can have an impact on her fertility. And, if you become ill, your body has fewer fat reserves to help you get better.
How good is your body image?
While Tom has never experienced any health problems, Fiona has suffered at the hands of her build. She says: “My immune system must be weak as I am always getting coughs and colds. Sometimes I feel dizzy and I get awful headaches and rarely have the energy to exercise. Most of all I just feel really depressed about my size.”
What do food labels really mean?
“You have to be very careful and make sure you are eating the right balance of meat, carbohydrates and other food groups. Fiona says she often feels dizzy, which tells me that her sugar levels are low, making her hypoglycaemic. This doesn’t mean she should eat lots of sugar, just enough to keep her healthy. I would also advise cutting out caffeine, as people have a habit of using this as a form of snacking and it is not good for them.”
As a personal trainer, Keri Probert (www.newphysique.net) thinks putting on weight is a challenge that requires a great deal of commitment. “Any personal trainer will tell you that helping a client put on weight is one of the hardest things to do. What they want to do is put on lean muscle, not fat, and this has to be done slowly. It is not an overnight thing and people need to be committed. If they want to add on fat then they can just go out and eat lots of rubbish.
The ten most effective exercises
“So it is not easy but with the right programme they can increase load. To help them build up muscle mass could take at least a year, and they should do mostly weights but also some cardiovascular exercise. The heart is, after all, the most important muscle in the body.”
Tips on gaining weight
- Set yourself realistic target weights to aim for gradually.
- Keeping a food diary for a few weeks will help you learn more about your eating habits.
- Plan three regular meals a day with mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks.
- Make meals larger and more calorific. Have an extra slice of toast for breakfast Add peanut butter to anything agreeable, try swirling it in ice cream or making peanut butter milk shakes. Be generous with healthy unsaturated oils, salad dressings and spreads.
- Drink as many calories as you can. Have grape juice instead of orange juice and have coffee with whole milk. Drinking calories leaves more space for high calorie food as it is less filling.
- Always keep snacks nearby, like nuts, seeds and raisins. Pots of rice pudding, custard or yoghurts are nice for a mid-morning snack, and flapjacks or cereal bar make a good mid-afternoon snack.
- Even though you are trying to gain weight, exercise is still important, so make sure you do 30 minutes of exercise 5 times a week, in addition to resistance training.
- Maintaining your increased food intake is essential to fuel your body during exercise, ensuring you have enough spare to allow gradual weight gain.