How to Eat When You're Struggling to Eat Enough

While you won’t see it on any magazine covers and it’s a difficult concept to understand—especially for those of us whose lives revolve around food—there are many people who struggle to ingest enough calories throughout the day. Whether they fail to meet the minimum recommended daily calories or they’re trying to build muscle, it’s an issue that doesn’t get much attention in our weight-loss-obsessed world. The deficit can occur for a number of reasons.
Whatever those reasons might be, eating within your calorie range is important for your body to properly function, especially when fitness is part of the equation. It is very difficult to meet nutritional needs on a diet that is less than 1,200 calories, and long-term usage of a very low-calorie diet could result in protein and fat deficiencies as well as various vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Other complications include muscle wasting, constipation, weakness, fatigue, dizziness, irregular menstrual periods, swelling in hands and feet, gall bladder issues, gout and electrolyte imbalances. In addition, you need to eat enough calories to maintain a healthy metabolism and to stay energized.
Do not attempt a very low-calorie diet without the guidance of a medically managed weight-loss program. While you might think that eating less is the golden ticket, eating too little may actually hurt your weight-loss efforts. Don’t make the mistake of believing that "the less I eat, the more I’ll lose." As with everything in life, proper calorie intake is all about balance. With this guide to boosting your calories with smart snack and meal choices, you'll have the nutrients and energy you need to finally hit those weight goals.

Identifying the Problem

To begin the process of adding calories to your healthy eating plan, it's important that you first identify the problem area. For one to two weeks, accurately record every meal and snack time, carefully measuring the portion size of all foods and beverages consumed and tracking your complete intake. Then, add the nutrients calcium, fiber, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C and zinc.

At the end of your recording period, analyze the results:
  • Are you skipping meals? If so, why?
  • Are you eliminating food groups or not getting the correct number of servings from a food group as recommended by Choose My Plate?
  • Are you so busy that you are forgetting to eat?
  • Are you ignoring your hunger cues throughout the day?
  • Are you low in a particular macronutrient (protein, fat or carbohydrates)?
  • Are you missing adequate levels of certain vitamins, minerals or fiber?
Once you’ve identified the problem, use the following tips and food suggestions to help increase calories. Do not feel overwhelmed with the amount of suggestions provided in this article; it is not necessary to implement every single one. Instead, select the ones that work best with your eating plan and overall health goals. For example:
  • If you have a medical condition such as heart disease or diabetes, select the tips that fit with the meal plan or food selection guidelines provided by your primary care provider or registered dietitian nutritionist.
  • If you use a lower carbohydrate eating plan for weight loss, only select those tips that work within your carbohydrate range. 
  • If you are skipping meals or forgetting to eat, try setting an alarm on your phone or computer to remind you of meal and snack times. 
  • If you have little time to cook or limited cooking skills, use the suggestions in the "Meal Replacements & Supplements" chart below. 
By applying just a few of the tips each day, you will be back on track and in control of your healthy caloric intake in no time.

Ready for a Healthy Calorie Boost?

  • Eat five to six small meals and snacks throughout the day. Your goal is to eat every three to four hours during your waking hours.
  • If you're not hungry for food, opt for high-calorie nutritious liquids including whole milk, hot chocolate or a yogurt-fruit smoothie instead. Limit diet drinks, tea, and coffee.
  • Use full-fat dairy products or full-fat non-dairy milk alternatives.
  • Limit the use of "diet" foods and foods sweetened with artificial sweeteners.
  • Increase the portion sizes of the foods already on your plate by one-eighth to one-quarter. For example, a four-ounce piece of meat becomes five ounces or one-cup of dry cereal becomes 1 ¼ cups. These small increases alone could add a few hundred calories to your daily intake.
  • Have ready-to-eat snacks available to munch on when you feel hungry. Easy snacks include trail mix, nuts, dried fruit, whole-grain crackers with cheese or peanut butter, pudding cups, yogurt, energy bars, a piece of fruit or vegetables with hummus.
  • Make your own super-strength milk for extra calories and protein. Simply mix together one quart of whole milk and one cup of non-fat dry milk powder. Stir for about three minutes until the dry milk is dissolved. Store this beverage in your refrigerator and use it just as you would regular milk. A one-cup portion of this concoction delivers up 211 calories.
  • Select foods to boost calories based on the nutrients that are already missing in your diet.
If you are low in: Use chart:
Protein Meat & Protein; Dairy & Non-Dairy Milk Alternatives
Fat Fats & Sweeteners
Carbohydrates Fruits & Vegetables; Grains (using whole-grain choices)
Calcium Dairy & Non-Dairy Milk Alternatives
Fiber Fruits & Vegetables; Grains (using whole-grain choices)
Vitamin A, Vitamin C Fruits & Vegetables
Iron, Zinc Meat & Protein
Specific Foods and How to Use Them:
Fruits & Vegetables
Food Calories How to Use
1/2 medium
160 Slice for a sandwich or salad.
Mash as a dip for vegetables or chips.
1 medium
105 Eat alone as a snack.
Mash to put in baked goods.
Blend into a smoothie or milkshake.
Use as topping for cereal or pudding.
Dried Fruit
(raisins, cranberries, cherries, blueberries, apricots, pineapple, peaches, prunes)
1 ounce
60-100 Use in trail mix.
Stir into yogurt.
Add to cereal.
Top a salad.
Have as a snack.
Sweet Potato
1 medium, with skin
105 Use in soups, casseroles or baked goods.
Make homemade sweet potato fries.
Top with cinnamon and brown sugar.
Peas, Corn, Beans
(black, kidney, pinto, navy, garbanzo)
½ cup
60-300 Mix with rice, pasta, soups or casseroles.
Top a salad.
Make into a dip.
(fresh, frozen, canned)
½ cup
60 Eat alone as a snack.
Spread with peanut, nut or seed butter.
Mix with a cereal, pudding or smoothie.
Ripe, Black Olives
½ ounce
35 Add to a salad, pizza or pasta.
Meat & Protein
Food Calories How to Use
1 large
80 Use as a breakfast food.
Add to baked goods, casseroles, French toast, pancakes, waffles or ground meat before cooking.
Hard-boil and top a salad, eat as a snack or make into egg salad.
Peanut Butter,
Nut and Seed Butters
(peanut, soy, almond, sunflower, cashew, sesame, pecan)
1 tablespoon
90-100 Use as a dip for fruit or vegetables.
Spread on crackers or toast.
Stir into hot cereals.
Mix into smoothies or protein shakes.
Nuts, Seeds, Peanuts
(almonds, peanuts, cashews, pistachios, walnuts, macadamia, pecans, sunflower)
1 ounce
155-200 Use in baked goods.
Sprinkle on yogurt, ice cream, cereal, salads, vegetables or stir-fry.
Use in trail mix.
Enjoy as a snack.
1 tablespoon
25 Use as a dip for vegetables, crackers or pita chips.
Spread on a sandwich. 
Lean Cuts of Meat, Poultry or Fish
4 ounces, cooked
100-250 Bake and have with a meal.
Make a sandwich.
Top a salad or pasta.
Add to a casserole.
Dairy & Non-Dairy Milk Alternatives (Calcium and Vitamin D Fortified)
Food Calories How to Use
Full-Fat Dairy or Soy Cheese
(cheddar, Swiss, provolone, muenster, Colby, mozzarella, Feta, Parmesan)
1 ounce
75-125 Top cooked vegetables, potatoes, pasta, casseroles, soups, pizza, popcorn, sandwiches, crackers or salads.
Have as a snack, served with whole-wheat crackers or vegetables.
Whole Milk or Soy Milk
1 cup
150 Drink.
Use in place of water in soups, hot cereals, smoothies or other recipes.
Pudding or Custard
½ cup
110-200 Make with whole milk and eggs.
Mix in fruit.
Have as a dessert or snack.
4% Cottage Cheese
½ cup
120 Serve with fruit or vegetables.
Have as a snack.
Serve as a side dish with a meal.
Full-Fat Yogurt
(dairy or soy)
1 cup
140 Enjoy as a snack.
Use as a dip with fruit.
Mix into a smoothie or smoothie bowl.
Whole Chocolate Milk, Hot Chocolate, Commercial Eggnog,
Yogurt Smoothie
(dairy or soy)
1 cup
Have as a beverage.
Food Calories How to Use
Granola Bars and Energy Bars 120-270 Eat as a portable, nonperishable quick snack.
Trail Mix
1.25 ounces
180 Eat as a portable, nonperishable quick snack.
1 cup, cooked
160 Use as a breakfast item.
Mix into cookies, muffins or breads.
½ cup, cooked
110 Use as a side dish for meals.
Add to soups.
Brown Rice
½ cup, cooked
110 Use as a side dish for meals. 
Add to soups and casseroles.
Whole-Wheat Bread, 2 slices
Bagel, 3 ounces
English Muffin, 2 ounces
Croissant, 2 ounces
Tortilla, 8-inch
Make a sandwich using deli meat, cheese, egg, egg salad, nut or seed butter.
Use in egg strata or bread pudding.
Pancake, 4-inch
1, 4-inch
1, 7-inch
Top with maple syrup, fruit, whole milk yogurt, nuts, peanut butter and/or butter for breakfast.
Buttered Popcorn
3 cups
130 Sprinkle with parmesan cheese or eat plain as a snack.
Fats & Sweeteners
Food Calories How to Use
(canola, olive, sunflower, vegetable, soybean, corn)
1 teaspoon
40 Use in homemade salad dressing for salads, sautéed vegetables or pasta.
Toss with pasta, noodles or cooked vegetables.
Add to homemade soup or stir-fry.
Use in baked goods.
Dip bread in olive oil and flavored vinegar.
(dairy, soy, coconut-based)
1 teaspoon
35 Spread on toast, bread, bagel or English muffin.
Melt over vegetables or pasta. 
Use in baking.
Heavy Whipping Cream
Coconut Cream
Half and Half
1 tablespoon
Use as some of the liquid in hot cereal.
Add to a smoothie or milkshake.
Use in a creamed soup or creamy sauces.
Full-Fat Ice cream
Frozen Yogurt
½ cup
Serve with fruit and/or nuts.
Full-Fat Sour Cream
1 tablespoon
30 Use as a topping on potatoes.
Use in dips.
Mix into a casserole or soup. 
Honey, Pure Maple Syrup, Jam, Jelly
1 tablespoon
55-65 Use to top pancakes, waffles, French toast, toast or bagels.
Use to flavor hot cereal, yogurt, tea or smoothies.
Full-Fat Salad Dressing and Mayonnaise
2 tablespoons
90-190 Add to sandwiches, egg salad, potato salad, pasta salad, coleslaw, leafy green salads or vegetables.
2 tablespoons
30-50 Top meat, potatoes, pasta, rice or vegetables.
Meal Replacements & Supplements
Food Calories How to Use
Frozen or Shelf-Stable Meal Replacement 300-400 Have alone as a main dish or add a side salad, raw or cooked vegetables, and/or piece of fruit to round out the meal.
Meal Replacement Shake
(Boost, Ensure, Carnation Instant Breakfast or similar store brand)
130-350 Have alone as a snack.
Use as a meal and add a side salad, raw or cooked vegetables, and/or piece of fruit to round out the meal.
Protein Powder, 1 ounce 100-130 Add to smoothies, pudding, cottage cheese or water.
Dry Powdered Milk
2 tablespoons
30 Add to mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, ground meats, cream soups, pudding, casseroles, hot cereals or milk.
1.5 ounce
330 Add to smoothies, milkshakes, yogurt, hot cereal, or mashed potatoes.
Remember to monitor your calorie intake for all nutrients as you work to boost your calorie intake. If you find that you are still struggling with calorie intake even after implementing some of the tips above, please contact your primary care provider, registered dietitian nutritionist or a behavioral health therapist who specializes in eating issues for additional advice.