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Do Weight Gain Supplements Work?

By Sandi Busch

Most weight gainers, or mass gainers, are powders that you mix with water or another favorite beverage. These powders work because they’re quite high in calories -- higher than protein powders or meal replacements -- which makes it easier to significantly boost caloric intake without forcing down more food than you care to consume. Weight gain supplements in tablet or capsule form don’t deliver many calories, so they’re not effective for adding pounds.

Boost Calories With Weight Gain Powders

You’ll need to consume 3,500 calories more than your body normally uses to gain 1 pound. This breaks down to 500 extra calories daily to add 1 pound in a week. While you can add calories through foods and beverages, it’s a challenge to consistently eat enough calories from nutritious foods, rather than empty calories from added sugar or unhealthy fat calories.

Weight gain powders pack a lot of calories into one beverage, which can be used as a snack or dessert to add calories to your daily menu. Some powders are mixed with 16 ounces of fluid, while others are combined with 24 ounces, so consider the amount you can drink when choosing a product. Make sure you know how many extra calories you need to reach your goals, because weight gainers are available with anywhere from 500 to 1,300 calories or more per serving. That might be more calories than you need for safe weight gain.

The calories in weight gain powders primarily come from carbohydrate in the form of a complex starch called maltodextrin. One product with 1,300 total calories per serving contains 253 grams of carbs, which provides 1,012 calories. Some weight gainers are high in fat. For example, one brand has 17 grams of total fat per serving. The fat comes from a variety of sources; some brands contain medium chain triglycerides, which are digested and metabolized similarly to carbs.

Role of Protein in Weight Gain Powders

Weight gain powders are often marketed to people involved in bodybuilding, endurance training and other athletic activities. As a result, many are high in protein because it helps muscles build new tissue, which supports recovery following exercise and encourages muscle development when paired with a strength training program, reported Nutrition and Metabolism in May 2012. As you build new lean muscle, your overall body weight increases.

Weight gainers have about 50 grams of protein per serving. The protein can come from combinations of whey, casein, egg and soy, which are all high-quality proteins. Check the nutrition label to know for sure.

Include any protein obtained from weight gainers with the rest of your daily intake so you can keep track of total protein consumption. Some athletes may need extra protein, but most adults need a minimum of 0.4 grams of protein per pound of body weight. You can also simply follow Institute of Medicine general recommendations of 46 grams daily for women and 56 grams for men. People with certain medical conditions, such as kidney disease, should not use weight gain supplements with high protein content, and should follow the dietary advice of a doctor or dietitian.

Supplemental Appetite Stimulants

A variety of supplemental tablets and capsules marketed as weight gainers contain ingredients that are supposed to stimulate your appetite. While there are effective appetite stimulants, they're prescription medications containing hunger-inducing hormones or cannabinoids. Be cautious about buying over-the-counter appetite stimulants. Chances are, their ingredients have not been scientifically proven to help you gain weight.

One weight gainer supplement contains substances extracted from echinacea, called isobutylamides. Prescription cannabinoids work by stimulating areas of the brain that make you feel hungry. Isobutylamides affect the same areas, so they may trigger hunger, but studies published so far have produced conflicting results. One study showed they stimulated the hunger receptors, but another study found they inhibited the same areas, according to research cited by Pharmacy Today in June 2014.

The different outcomes were attributed to echinacea containing 13 isobutylamides, and only two stimulate hunger. Each study used a different sample of echinacea, and they yielded opposing results. When you buy supplements, chances are you won't know which active ingredient you'll get.

Supplemental appetite stimulants may contain any combination of a long list of herbal ingredients. These herbs are generally chosen according to their use in traditional medicine -- and they may have an impact -- but research hasn't been conducted to determine their effectiveness. Some herbs such as ginger, peppermint and gentian are included because they stimulate saliva and calm digestion. These actions aren't associated with weight gain, however.

Other Ingredients in Weight Gainers

Weight gain powders may be fortified with vitamins and minerals, but you’ll need to read the labels, because whether they’re fortified -- and the type and amount of nutrients they contain -- is quite different from one brand to the next. Since vitamins and minerals don’t contain calories, they won’t help you gain weight, but they’re essential to keep your metabolism running.

Some weight gainers are formulated to include a large amount of branched-chain amino acids, or BCAAs. The three BCAAs -- leucine, isoleucine and valine -- are different from other amino acids because they’re used as a source of energy in muscle. BCAAs promote protein synthesis in muscles, whether they’re taken at rest or following exercise, reported the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition in 2014. This means they help develop muscle mass, which boosts weight. If you’re interested in extra BCAAs, make sure your weight gainer contains whey protein isolate because it's high in BCAAs.

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